Every East Coast city has had a legendary mayor — a superhero, or supervillain, who embodies the town’s aspirations, creative energies, its strengths, and its flaws. Boston has Curley. New York has LaGuardia. We’ve got Frank Hague. If you’re from Jersey City, you might think, not unreasonably, that our guy could lick their guy. That’s part of the thrill. It’s also part of the problem. 

For thirty years, Mayor Hague exercised unprecedented — and likely unrepeatable — control over the city, dominating civic life and exerting influence far beyond the Hudson and Hackensack. Seven decades after a retirement that wasn’t quite a retreat from power (he turned over the reins to his nephew, who governed with similar rapacity but far less effectiveness), he remains an object of fascination for Jerseyans, who’ve never quite stepped free of his shadow. “Horseshoe Empire,” a new play written by Margo Hammond and directed by Scott Alan Evans, is the latest expression of pained ambivalence about a public figure who we still can’t make up our minds about.  Was he a bullyboy or a brilliant strategist?  Did he do it all for the betterment of the town, or to line his pockets?  Or both?

Hammond has picked an appropriate spot to raise these questions: the backyard of the Museum of Jersey City History at the Apple Tree House (298 Academy St.). There, she’s set up a tent and a modest set, gathered seven actors and turned back the clock. The play, which concludes with four performances this weekend, is painfully relevant. It is a pointed reminder that the controversies surrounding Frank Hague haven’t gone anywhere. We’re still debating how much freedom we’re willing to give up for the sake of prosperity, and whether government ought to be allowed to push people around in the name of the common welfare. More problematically, and often sub rosa, we continue to wonder if a little corruption is worth it if those cutting corners are also elevating the profile of a city that’s often disrespected by outsiders.  

Hague is the heavy of “Horseshoe Empire,” but he isn’t exactly an antagonist. He drives the plot by doing something very Hague-like — he lifts an Irish American boxer out of poverty, giving him a job as a constable and making him a sturdy cog in the political machine. Ted Devlin, played with a nice balance of toughness and insecurity by Brennan Taylor, is good-hearted, but he also enjoys the attention, prestige, and rewards that accrue to him, compromise by compromise. Like Bud Fox in Wall Street, he’s got youth and energy on his side, but his skies are narrower than they seem.  As he sees it, he’s got two choices: he can ride along with the big guy and turn a blind eye to his unethical practices, or he can resign himself to a dead-end life in the Horseshoe, the Irish immigrant slum.  Devlin is an embodiment of the playwright’s suspicion that we tolerate high-handed politicians because of our low self-esteem, but the former fighter’s actions, and even his complicity, are understandable.

Even when he places himself above the law, the playwright brings him out as a man in passionate love with his, and our, city — and, in particular, the roughneck Irish immigrant kids he sees himself in.

As for the Mayor himself, his motivations are more complicated. He’s doing for the Irish, if he isn’t doing it for Jersey City, or for himself, or for the Catholic God (the Church comes off particularly badly in “Horseshoe Empire,” but it’s not an unfair characterization). The genial Frank Hankey plays Hague like a cross between Jack Nicholson in you-can’t-handle-the-truth mode and Professor Harold Hill. 

The closest literary analog to Hammond’s version of Mayor Hague, though, is Frank Skeffington, the roguish party boss who elbows his way through the pages of Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, shaking hands, winning, losing, and buying votes, and outfoxing his rivals through a combination of charisma, guile, and utter blarney. Skeffington is loyal to the poor Irish Americans who make his political career possible, and he advances their cause passionately, and sometimes even righteously. But a progressive crusader he is not.  He makes a political career for himself because he’s good at it — and because he enjoys extending his formidable personal power. In The Last Hurrah, the mild-mannered cartoonist who gets swept up in the whirlwind of Skeffington’s campaign finds himself at odds with a sensible wife who sees through the old scoundrel’s act and speaks out in private.  

Ted Devlin’s partner Kitty (Kelsea Baker) takes her skepticism about Hague further than that, tacitly supporting his gadfly opponent — the irritating but prescient Jeff Burkitt — and daring to be seen at a rally. Prostitute and barmaid Sophie Cappelupo (Jamie Ragusa), the play’s other female character, takes the boss’s money, abets his dirty tricks, and hates herself for it.  In Hammond’s Jersey City, women have the vote, and nascent political power, but they haven’t figured out what to do with it. Though they can see the corruption of the man’s world they inhabit, they lack the leverage and social capital to do anything but worry from the sidelines.  Surely this is historically accurate. It’s also dispiriting to watch. 

The virtuous woman distressed by the expediency of her ambitious husband — and concerned about the parlous state of his immortal soul —  is a stock character in fiction. So, for that matter, is the poor but talented young man who, because of a failure of imagination and a deep lack of self-confidence, seen no way forward but to deal with the Devil. Hammond’s portrayal of the Mayor draws on American Big Man archetypes from stage and screen: the general, the gangster boss, the monomaniacal coach, the ruthless captain of industry. For a play that couldn’t be more Jersey City, “Horseshoe Empire” often feels quite Hollywood. It’s worth wondering whether universal themes really apply to a man as parochial, and local in his outlook, as Frank Hague.

But “Horseshoe Empire” has less to say about specific human beings than it does about the roles they inhabit. Politics remains inescapable in Jersey City, even to those who’d love to avoid it, and City Hall still has an outsized influence over the lives of the ordinary people who live here. When challenger Lewis Spears wrote that people in Jersey City were afraid to cross the Mayor, he was suggesting that our political leaders retain, and freely exercise, the power to elevate favorites and ostracize dissenters. Defenders of the Administration dismissed Spears in invective awfully similar to that which Hague used to swat down the pesky Burkitt. Most of all, Hague’s breathless hyperbole about the city feels very similar to the boosterism that has often characterized official communications from 360 Grove Street. Hammond’s Frank Hague is engaged in a Make It Yours campaign of his own, and quick to shush those who’d cast doubt on his rosy narrative. That, too, is surely accurate.

For these impingements on free expression, Hammond condemns Hague unequivocally. Her Mayor is touchy and thin-skinned; he hides a brawler’s sensibility behind his hucksterism and relentless positivity. Yet even across the distance of decades, Hammond succumbs to the Hague charm. Jersey City thrives under his tireless oversight. His record of achievement is real.  Even when he places himself above the law, the playwright brings him out as a man in passionate love with his, and our, city — and, in particular, the roughneck Irish immigrant kids he sees himself in. It’s hard not to sympathize with that. 

The Hague years were not the worst period of municipal corruption. It was John V. Kenny, a Hague enemy, who dragged City Hall into its darkest period of venality and dysfunction, and gave our town a stink that still hasn’t completely washed away. Kenny, unlike Hague, did not proceed with any ardor for Hudson County. No humanizing plays will be written about him. Hague remains larger than life because of his brazenness and his power, but we also not-so-secretly appreciate his genuine faith in what Jersey City could be. The conversation about the old rascal’s legacy will continue, later this year, at an exhibition dedicated to Frank Hague at the Museum of Jersey City History. In the meantime, we’ve got Margo Hammond’s play to keep the argument going.  


There’ll be performances of “Horseshoe Empire” in the backyard of the Apple Tree House on Friday, June 16 at 6 p.m., Saturday, June 17 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., and Sunday, June 18 at 2 p.m., with a rain date at 6 p.m. on Sunday evening.  Tickets are available through the MJC History website.

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...