Any idea where he’s been
It was twenty minutes before the opening night curtain of a production called “Rolling Along”. The public gathered in the lobby of the Signature Theater on West Forty-second Street. A woman took out her iPad and cell phone. “I’m at an event you’d like to attend,” was how she began a call, while scrolling through CNN’s website. She stopped for as long as it takes to say “What?”
“Bill Bradley does a one-man show!”
The one hundred and sixty attendees signed documents acknowledging that they could appear in a documentary that would be filmed during the performance, the first in a four-night series. They marched through the theater to find a business card on each seat, as if the show was a giant dinner party: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Charlie Rose, Bob Kerrey, Phil Murphy.
When the lights went out, the stage was empty except for a table and a chair. Bradley appeared, dressed in pants and a pale blue V-neck sweater over a button-up shirt. He faced the audience with a strange, ambiguous expression that suggested an apology was coming. It is possible that as someone who had lived up to immense expectations for most of his life – who had, as John McPhee said in an article for that magazine, “a sense of place where you are” – he felt a bit lost.
For the next hundred minutes, Bradley told the story of his life, organized around refined anecdotes. He started in Crystal City, Missouri, where he was the only child of a small-town bank president with a bad back, and quickly progressed his rise as a high school athlete, basketball prodigy -college ball, Oxford varsity, failing rookie with the Knicks, a star and a two-time champion. And then a rookie senator from New Jersey, a three-term senator from New Jersey, and, in 2000, a presidential candidate who ran in a primary against Al Gore, after which he became an investment banker – well , “my father’s banker’s son.” And, now, perform in a solo piece.
There was anecdote after anecdote about the life of a basketball star. The time he went to see a Russian teacher at Princeton before facing the Russians in the 1964 Olympics and learned some Russian phrases, which he used to scare the Russians off in the gold medal game . How he first felt in the Knicks locker room because he was making more money than anyone else in the league, for reasons that seemed to be tied to him being white. How fans booed him on the pitch that year, throwing coins at him.
In the Signature lobby a few days later, after the final performance, seventy-eight-year-old Bradley was tired but willing; he runs cool and had energy in reserve. He said the idea for the show started after a reception at Princeton, to which he donated his papers in 2017. The university library had compiled an oral history about him, speaking to more than a hundred people. About seventy showed up at the reception. “I prepared a speech where I mentioned each person,” he said.
His friend Manny Azenberg, a theater producer, was present. “Fifty-year-old friend Manny never gave me a compliment,” Bradley said. “But after my speech he came over and said, ‘That sounds like Hal Holbrook. Why don’t you prepare something? And then I just started doing it. Bradley continued, “I would drive around the country to revise it. I would go to Salt Lake or Chicago, or Austin, Texas, or Marin County, to those little theaters. As part of his research, he said, he looked at the work of Holbrook, Billy Crystal and Spalding Gray. Gray always performed his monologues with an open script in front of him, but Bradley memorized his.
“Discipline is discipline,” he said. “You need discipline to hit twenty-five in a row. And you need discipline to memorize something. There’s probably been three to five days in the last eighteen months that I haven’t did this show, or a version of it. After the start of covid, he repeated during long walks in Central Park.
When he was on the road with “Rolling Along”, he would ask the audience for notes after each performance: “A guy in Salt Lake said, ‘You know, senator, this is interesting, but people want guts out of Put even more guts on the floor.” This could be seen as a valid criticism of Bradley’s behavior as a senator, and especially as a presidential candidate. But his talent is perhaps for consistency and a sense of proportion, to play in space. Even in a one-man show, he thought about teamwork. “The key is to find the balance between frankness and excess”, he said. he said, “You want to say enough but leave enough room for people’s imaginations.” ♦