“Find a way to make a way,” says Mayor Franklyn Longley, played by Jerome Preston Bates, in the powerful political drama “Autumn,” which is at the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick through May 3, in a world premiere.
That’s pretty much his political philosophy. He holds office in a “large northeastern American city,” according to the program, and though the word “Newark” is never uttered in the play, all signs point to that being the city in question. Whatever city it is, though, it’s economically troubled, and Longley has taken some steps to make it better (and make himself rich in the process). And if he’s made some morally — and possibly legally — questionable moves along the way … well, he justifies them to himself as what he needed to do to get stuff done.
Longley, who will inevitably remind many viewers of former Newark mayor Sharpe James, is a bona fide tragic figure. Not an evil man, just one whose hubris drives him to do bad things (which don’t look that terrible in the comfort of his office, where he can lie to himself, but have dire consequences for the people of the city he runs). He’s had a long political life, and the appropriately titled “Autumn” finds him near the end of it. Though, as the play begins, he thinks it’s just beginning.
The first scene finds him with the state’s governor (Terria Joseph), arguing that he should be her handpicked choice to succeed her in Trenton (or whatever the capital of this large northeastern American city happens to be). She seems to agree. And then Longley picks his godson Ronald Drayton (Michael Chenevert) — the son of his chief of staff, Zack Drayton (Count Stovall) — to be his own successor. Ronald, a state assemblyman, is basically the Cory Booker figure in the play: young, well-educated and idealistic. He hasn’t had to scratch and claw the way Longley has, to get ahead, and you can’t imagine him dirtying his hands the way Longley has, under any circumstances.
Other characters in the play include Longley’s wife, Melissa (Kim Weston-Moran), who is not thrilled with the man her husband has become; and Tricia Johnson (Stephanie Berry), a City Hall protester whose own story, which runs parallel to the main plot, shows how Longley’s decisions affect his constituents.
Needless to say, things don’t unfold exactly the way Longley wants or expect them to. But he’s only got himself to blame.
Playwright Richard Wesley, who lives in Montclair, does a masterful job of creating not just one, or two, but three characters (Franklyn Longley, Zack Drayton and Tricia Johnson) who are complex, conflicted and intriguing enough to be a central character (though it’s Longley’s play, all the way). The scenic design, by Chris Cumberbatch, is simple but serviceable — just a generic office, really, that functions as the workplace for both the mayor and the governor. Costumes, by Ali Turns, were fine, though I thought Ronald’s switch from casual attire to a sharp business suit as he begins to get in touch with his own inner political ambition was a bit heavy-handed.
The actors all evoked the personalities of their characters effectively, though in the production I saw (Wednesday morning), several of them seemed to have trouble with their lines, stumbling over words here or there, or pausing as if they weren’t sure what came next. But this was a small problem in a production that had a lot going for it. And should be required viewing for anyone contemplating a life in politics.