Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Nixon's Nixon

‘NIXON’S NIXON’— a probe into the past at ACTORS’ SUMMIT

Russell Lees' ‘NIXON’S NIXON,’ now on stage at Actors’ Summit, is a historical docudrama which imagines the conversation that might have taken place when then-President Richard Nixon summoned Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to the White House on August 7, 1974. This was the night before Nixon resigned from the Presidency due to the Watergate scandal. Though no one, except the two men knows the content of their conversation, Lees imagines that the duo relived past glories, conjured up their political legacies, and wrestled with their personal insecurities.

The ninety-minute play, performed without an intermission, is at times compelling, while at other times gets a little tedious. At times it is humorous, at times humorless.

We see a Nixon who alternates between being desperate, shrewd, paranoid, but, most important, utterly baffled by the situation in which he finds himself. How could his “friends” be demanding his resignation? How could his loyal public not come to his side, like Napoleon’s former warriors did when he returned from exile? This is a man who is on the brink of a total psychological melt-down. No sooner does one thought come into his head than another arrives before he has fully articulated the first. His language is obscene. His always inept smile, his inability to see reality, is present.
Kissinger, who starts off as a statesman who sees reality, but soon falls prey to his ego and desire to continue to be at the hub of the US foreign policy, starts conceiving illogical plots to save the duo. His fertile imagination includes various "Dr. Strangelove"-like possibilities including starting a war on the Russian-Chinese border.

Unfortunately, Lees fails to build all the needed tension of the high-stakes poker game he’s set up. The script often meanders.

Though both A. Neil Thackaberry (Nixon) and George Roth (Kissinger) are generally excellent, there are times when the portrayals need some polishing and a reality check. For example, Roth continually hides his head in his hands looking very child like. This would work if his actions following this departure from his usual logical control, were more keyed. His accent comes and goes. Thackaberry often misses the maniacal look that Nixon had, foreshadowing one of his deceptive actions. His body, complete with the traditional almost cartoon like gestures, sometimes loses the image. The “tricky Dickey” is only there part time.

The production yells for a keen eye to detail and the needed frenetic pacing to highlight Nixon’s closeness to being totally out of touch with reality and Kissinger’s near desperation, the qualities that garnered critical claim in its New York run.

Things are not helped by director Constance Thackaberry’s direction. Part of the problem may be the director’s youth. As she indicates in the program, the era and the characters were a historical discovery for her. Maybe someone who had lived through the Nixon days might have had a clearer awareness of the almost bipolar swings of the man and the tension of the era. And, her lack of directing background may also come into play here as the eye for detail is often missing.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “NIXON’S NIXON’ is a good exposé of the Nixon era. The production, though sometimes slow, is interesting, if not compelling, and is worth a go-to for those interested in historical events and political intrigue.