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Teddy Roosevelt rides anew in one-man show

By
FREDERICK M. WINSHIP

NEW YORK, Nov. 8 (UPI) -- Actor Laurence Luckinbill couldn't have picked a better time to premiere his one-man show about President Theodore Roosevelt, whose bellicose views on defending the Republic against its enemies are completely attuned to the policies of President George W. Bush.

"Teddy Tonight!," the new solo presentation at the Off Broadway Abington Theater, spends a considerable amount of its 2-hour running time to Roosevelt's use of the bully pulpit of his ex-presidency to denounce President Woodrow Wilson's attempt to keep the United States out of World War I in spite of provocation by the German "Huns."

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Roosevelt's image as an advocate of war with Spain and as the Rough Rider hero of the Battle of San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American war helped him greatly in his political career. It was an image he still nurtured as head of the Bull Moose party opposing Wilson's re-election in 1916.

By then he was getting on toward 60, crippled by gout, and hobbling on a cane, "Not walking so softly, but still carrying a big stick," as he liked to say.

No one watching Luckinbill as the old rough and ready warrior will fail to recognize similarities between Roosevelt's vehement opposition to "useless" negotiations with Germany and Bush's unwillingness to put off a showdown with Saddam Hussein's untrustworthy regime in Iraq. As the saying goes, it's déjà vu all over again, perhaps a chance to learn from the trials and errors of history.

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Luckinbill's show is not only edifying from that point of view but also from the always entertaining experience of seeing an actor or actress get under the skin of a famous personality so convincingly that they seem like the real McCoy or Roosevelt as the case may be. A wig, moustache, and pince nez glasses help Luckinbill look like Teddy but it is the actor's skill in assuming the 26th president's larger-than-life personality that really brings his subject to life.

Luckinbill first made audiences sit up and take notice when he appeared in "The Boys in the Band" on Broadway in 1968 and subsequently carved out for himself a distinguished career on stage ("The Shadow Box," "Cabaret"), screen ("The Mating Season" with his wife, Lucie Arnaz), and television (his own ABC series, "The Delphi Bureau"). He has toured the world in two previous solo performances as President Lyndon B. Johnson and Clarence Darrow.

Luckinbill opens the show with an informal chat with the audience as he puts on his makeup, then mounts a bunting-bedecked speaker's podium with difficulty to make the last public appearance of his career shortly before his death in 1919. He has just learned that the youngest of his four sons, Quentin, is missing in action in France. It is an emotional moment as he struggles to go on with his speech as planned.

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Teddy then slips into a reminiscent mood and begins to tell the story of his life, an autobiographical account that is far from detached in its viewpoint. No one can dispute that the man had a big ego despite his many winning qualities.

The show has been written by Luckinbill based on extensive reading of Roosevelt's books, speeches, and letters and books and other material written about him by contemporary observers. The actor punctuates the account with his favorite expletive, "Bully!," and asks his audience to shout out the word occasionally to show approval. It's more fun than just applauding.

What comes through as Teddy' strongest character traits are love of family and love of country.

He adored his father and felt his encouraging parental hand on his shoulder long after his father's death. He adored his first wife and was overwhelmed by grief when she and his mother died on the same day, and he loved his second wife with the same intensity. He was never happier than at home with his family at their Long Island estate, Sagamore Hill.

His six children were always a delight to him, even daughter Alice who liked to get her own way, and he never tired of roughhousing with them when they were small. He even kept an eye on his plain, awkward niece, Eleanor, and considered her a good match for his handsome cousin, Franklin, because he suspected she was "an ugly ducking who would grow into a swan."

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His account of leading the attack on San Juan Hill in Cuba, his term as New York City's police chief, New York State's governor, and assistant secretary of the U. S. Navy - offices leading to the vice presidency ("a terrible, useless job') and his succession to the presidency on the assassination of President William McKinley -- is rich in anecdote.

It comes as a surprise to learn that he was not a particularly wealthy man, although from a prosperous sugar-refining family, and had only his writing as a source of income for a number of years. One of the satisfactions of being president was that it paid him a decent salary! It also gave him the chance to expand the power of the executive office, promote social welfare programs, and safeguard the nation's natural resources.

Luckinbill doesn't leave anything out. It's like taking a history course from a beloved professor who can bring events and personalities of the past to vivid life, well worth the price of tuition.

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