by Clark Groome
People either loved or hated Frank Rizzo, the Philadelphia cop who became police chief and, from 1972-1980, mayor of the city he loved but often traumatized.
He was a no-nonsense enforcer who let his own views about who’s who and what’s what get in the way of actually looking objectively at the troubles that major cities were experiencing during his almost two decades being the city’s most dominant public figure.
Rizzo, a South Philly native who lived on Crefeld Street in Chestnut Hill during the last two decades of his life, has been and continues to be a controversial figure. Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham has written the most anticipated new play of the theater season. “Rizzo,” being produced through Nov. 8 by Theatre Exile at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., uses former Inquirer and current ESPN reporter Sal Paolantonio’s “Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America” as a jumping-off point for a play that shows us the former mayor with all his maddening and puzzling contradictions.
While calling black folks “those people” and saying in his announcement that he’ll run for mayor that “I’m gonna make Attila the Hun look like a faggot,” we also see a man who seems to be, when not being a public bully or off-the-cuff autocrat, genuinely trying to work with his city’s most marginalized and angry people to make Philadelphia a better place for all.
Graham’s play benefits from the terrific actor Scott Greer’s extraordinary performance, a picture of balance and passion. And while “Rizzo” isn’t a one-person show, the supporting players — Robert Daponte, Akeem Davis, Paul L. Nolan, William Rahill and Amanda Schoonover — all play multiple characters well, including such familiar Philly figures as Cecil B. Moore, Marty Weinberg, Carmella Rizzo and Pete Camiel.
In addition, Damon Bonetti is the one consistent character, listed in the program as “Reporter” (likely fashioned on Paolantonio), who helps keep the story moving. While what he writes is often critical, he is clearly attracted to Rizzo as a person.
Director Joe Canuso has staged the show on John Hoey’s minimalist set. Greer’s Rizzo is such a dominating force that little else is needed.
As maddening as Rizzo can be — he was a bully who thought that beating up protesters rather than talking with them was the solution to the city’s contentious ills — he comes across as really caring about his city, and that at some level he may have had the citizens’ best interests at heart.
“Rizzo” captures the man in all his complexities. While it’s not likely to change anybody’s mind about who and what this man was, it does what borders on the remarkable: it makes you consider all your preconceived notions about the city’s most famous public figure.
It also gives you an opportunity to see an absolutely breathtaking performance from Scott Greer who doesn’t try to mimic Rizzo but represents and channels him.
“Rizzo” is a play worthy of the hype, the interest and your attention.
For tickets call 215-218-4022 or visit www.theatreexile.org