WATERTOWN - Early in "According to Tip," Dick Flavin's mostly charming ramble through the life of Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, Tip gives us a tip that goes a long way toward explaining the show's inspiration - and its appeal.
"Some of those old-time politicians were real showmen," he says. "That's the difference between politics then and now. Back then it was show business. Now it's advertising."
Flavin, a longtime observer of the Boston political scene - and therefore of one of its grandest products, the late speaker of the US House of Representatives - clearly relishes the showmanship of the old pols, emphatically including O'Neill. So the one-man show he's crafted, which is now receiving its world premiere with a winning performance by Ken Howard at the New Repertory Theatre, makes the most of the parallels between politics and theater.
Flavin's Tip not only tells stories (and grand stories they are, too); he acts them out and occasionally even garnishes them with a song. The result is a lively, generally engaging evening of entertainment with one of the great characters of our town - or, more precisely, of North Cambridge, because the man who famously said all politics is local certainly never forgot just which part of this locality he came from.
Howard, though not a native, passably wrangles the unique vowels of Tip's turf. No less an authority than Cambridge comic Jimmy Tingle (in Friday's opening-night audience, along with a passel of other local politico-humoro-theatrical lights) pronounced Howard's accent "pretty good" - high praise in these parts. Similarly, despite the false nose and mop of white hair, Howard doesn't so much impersonate O'Neill as create a persuasive evocation of him.
Less persuasive are some of the awkward transitions that Flavin's script makes between O'Neill's well-known public persona and his more complicated life at home. When we're watching Tip the master politician, "putting the arm" on his fellow Democrats, cajoling one reluctant rep out of the men's room for a key vote by saying that otherwise he might as well stay in the stall for good because it will be his new office, or recounting the shenanigans of his many colorful colleagues, we're seeing a believable portrait of a gregarious, street-smart man at the top of his game. When he switches to regretful musings on the children he barely saw as they grew up - his beloved wife, Millie, raised them in Cambridge while he worked in Washington - the emotional tone seems less assured.
That's partly, of course, because the private Tip was far more vulnerable and flawed than the public persona. But these scenes - particularly a brief but maudlin one in which O'Neill exhorts his youngest son, Mike, to get off booze and drugs - need more subtlety and complex shading if they're to fit believably into the narrative flow.
The script might also benefit from loosening its ties to chronology, especially because the ending as it now stands, with Tip retired and living on Cape Cod, is not only anticlimactic but also disconnected from the real essence of the man. New Rep artistic director Rick Lombardo, who steers this show with a generally sure hand, tries to ease that transition with some recorded seagull and surf noises; he'd be better off persuading Flavin to cut the Cape entirely, and find a way to keep the focus on Tip in his element: in the swim of things in Washington, not rusticating at the beach.
On the whole, though, Howard imbues Flavin's re-creation of the man with a wholehearted charm, decency, and native wit that make him a delightful companion for the evening. His singing is as good as you'd expect from an Irish pol - which is to say, unpolished but endearing - and his comic timing spot-on. Especially when he's recalling his battles with Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon, or musing over his longtime affiliation with the Kennedy clan, Howard's Tip O'Neill seems fiery, fiercely loyal, and fundamentally committed to helping people in need. In short, he seems a lot like the real Tip O'Neill.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.