As Harding, actorco-producer Shannon masterfully conceals his subject‘s charisma and psychology from us, remaining opaquely affable from beginning to end. It doesn’t help that he looks nothing like Harding, disdaining to compromise his lack of similarity even by whitening and combing his hair to match the man he is portraying. Perhaps this is why Shannon‘s stiff Harding seems more likely to jump into bed with a good book than a bad broad. (Watching Robert F. Lyons, who performs a nice turn as Harding’s snaky confidant, Harry Daugherty, one cannot help but mentally switch the actors and their roles.) Ultimately, it may have been better to have had the two leads played by younger actors who “age” as the play progresses rather than by middle-aged actors who simply cannot convincingly appear to be in their 20s and early 30s, as are Harding and the Duchess, respectively, when they first meet.
What we‘re supposed to learn from Everyone’s Friend is never clear. There is a short scene where Harding as president denounces the mistreatment of blacks, and, given Harding‘s rumored Negro ancestry, we wonder for a moment if his motivation might be a little more personal than anyone realized at the time, but this possibility is never broached again. There is even a revisionist bid to polish Harding’s reputation by blaming everything on the men he handpicked for his Cabinet; this plea, ventriloquized through Florence, comes at the very end of the play, after Harding has suffered his fatal stroke in San Francisco. It‘s then that we realize we’ve been watching a one-man show with supporting actors. (Ironically, this is a story that cries out for a multiroled ensemble.)
Harding‘s administration benignly tolerated or introduced the 12-hour workday, the use of child labor and the passage of tariffs that would prove fatal to many farmers. Harding himself temporarily escaped the taint of scandal through one last deft feat of timing: He died shortly before congressional hearings into Teapot Dome and other outrages began. Harding’s interior secretary, Hubert Work, explained the president‘s fatal collapse by saying, “The president, physical and intellectual giant that he is, was overtaxed.” Alice Roosevelt Longworth expressed a more citric opinion of Harding’s mental capabilities. “Harding was not a bad man,” she remarked. “He was just a slob.” Yet given what we know about our presidents since Harding, that doesn‘t sound like such a bad epitaph after all.