note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
In July 2008, when actor Ken Howard initially portrayed larger-than-life, bombastic, influential Democratic Speaker of the House, Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill, in Dick Flavin’s play, “According to Tip,” Bostonians were so delighted, they demanded a repeat performance.
Relatives of the fabulous Irishman from Cambridge were deeply moved. In fact, Tip’s son, Thomas O’Neill, was effusive, tossing accolades at Howard and Flavin. He praised Flavin’s biographic and political detail, and Howard’s uncanny reincarnation of O’Neill’s mannerisms; his easy, offhand dismissals of people and issues; his breezy way of telling a tale or singing a tune; his lumbered gait; mischievous chuckle; and forthright truthfulness.
This week, audiences at the Lyric Theatre are enjoying an equally fabulous treat. Flavin is enchanting in his solo performance of his longtime friend. Although Flavin wears a “fat suit” - he’s much thinner than O’Neill - and his nose is aquiline, unlike O’Neill’s bulbous proboscis, the Emmy Award-winning TV commentator-speaker-author has reincarnated O’Neill through script, songs, and stories. His gestures, chuckle, speech, and Irish charm are as captivating as Howard’s sterling performance. Flavin’s only flaw is when he sings old-fashioned ditties,he sometimes races ahead of the music.
Flavin captures O’Neill’s childhood, growing up in a Cambridge middle class family, loving politics at an early age. He never knew his mother, he says, because she died of tuberculosis when he was nine months old. He was passed from aunt to aunt to help his dad raise him.
In O’Neill’s early days, he was influenced by Honey Fitz, or John Fitzpatrick, John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s (JFK) grandfather, and infamous mayor James Michael Curley. What colorful, scandalous tales he tells, especially about Honey Fitz’s hidden affair with girlfriend Toodles Ryan.
He delights sharing his longtime surprising rise through the political ranks when the Democrats were in the minority, but ultimately overtook Congress. Tenderly, he discusses his wife, Millie, the love of his life and his best friend, and their five children, whom he regrets not moving to Washington, DC with him.
He faithfully returned home to Massachusetts every weekend for 34 years.
He also shares his wheeling and dealings with other politicians to get what he wanted, and his weekly card games, where the pols played friendly games, despite their political differences.
As O’Neill, Flavin readily provides the inside scoop on six presidents and other flamboyant politicians. He admits he loved JFK, but Bobby Kennedy, who stubbornly held grudges, treated O’Neill “like garbage”.
Nevertheless, he loved the Kennedy family, he confides.
Making eye contact with the audience, he says he disagreed with LBJ on the Vietnam War; warned Jerry Ford he was committing political suicide by granting Richard Nixon a pardon after the Watergate scandal; thought Jimmy Carter was a nice person, but he knew nothing about Washington; and Richard Nixon was a creep.
Although he liked Ronald Reagan as a friend, he went after him when Reagan tried to alter Social Security. “He forgot where he came from. I didn’t. He was Attila the movie star,” he quips.
Sargent Shriver was an upper crust guy, but Newt Gingrich is a mean b.....d, he spouts prophetically. O’Neill also upset Cardinal Bernie Law with his stand on abortion - women’s right to choose - telling the powerful Catholic leader that individual’s choice is the law of the land.
As O’Neill, Flavin is an amazing, living, breathing, historic chronicler, who’s well worth revisiting.
BOX INFO: One-man, two-act, two hour play, written and performed by Dick Flavin, directed by Richard McElvain, appearing through July 3 at the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St., Boston. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3,8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. Admission: $39-$47. Call 617-585-5678 or visit www.lyricstage.com.