Give ’Em Hell, Harry! by Samuel Gallu
Reviewed by Robert Viagas
The tiniest one-man show in one of the smallest Off-Off-Broadway venues thundered out some of the most powerful verbal brickbats about America’s political situation on the eve of the fraught 2019 elections.
Though Give ’Em Hell, Harry! was written more than 40 years ago and toured back then with James Whitmore in the title role of President Harry S Truman, the play sounds to 2018 ears to have been written last week as a reproach to the current holder of that job. And all without mentioning his name.
The thirty-third president, Truman served 1945 to 1953, from the end of the World War II through the Korean War. The play presents him as a folksy and amiable Everyman who was catapulted by fate into the Oval Office by the untimely death of his predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt. For all his humility, Truman had a spine of steel. This is the man who okayed the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and personally sacked the popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination in Korea. J. Dolan Byrnes plays Truman in this production as such a naturally sweet little guy that when he loses his temper—as Truman often did—it really makes an impact.
But what gives his production its sharp edge is Truman’s warnings about the potential for abuse of power and publicity that he saw in the highest offices of the land. He was talking about the likes of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and other period demagogues, but his cautions ring even truer today. He asserts that the public must remember that it is the boss and elected officials are its servants, reminds us that “the law is for everybody in this country,” warns of “reckless fanatics who could destroy us all,” and insists that one of the biggest dangers in the public discourse is “the Big Lie,” one that leaders “repeat over and over until people believe it.”
He concludes with Truman’s statement that “The most valuable piece of property in this country” is—“the voting booth.”
The play’s title comes from an apocryphal incident at one of the Truman’s fiery campaign speeches. A supporter reportedly yelled out, “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” to which Truman is said to have replied, “I don’t give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them, and they think it’s Hell.” This revival certainly gives Truman’s current successor a good hot taste.
Directed by Joan Kane, Give ’Em Hell, Harry! was presented by Ego Actus at the Episcopal Actors Guild, 1 East 29th Street in Manhattan through October 28.