Nixon’s Nixon Writers’ Theatre
The 68 months of Richard Nixon’s presidency were nothing if not surreal. This was the guy who instructed White House public relations staff to push the message that “now is the time to thank God Richard Nixon is president,” ordered the firing of the Watergate special prosecutor so as to replace him with the former Texas chair of Democrats for Nixon, fawned on Chairman Mao after having spent most of his career attacking communists, and flashed victory signs as he left office in disgrace. No wonder historian Stephen Ambrose characterized the Nixon years as a time when “the unanticipated, the unwelcome, and the unimaginable became the norm.”
So it’s not much of a leap to the fantasy offered in Russell Lees’s 1995 play Nixon’s Nixon, set on the night before Nixon will become the first U.S. president to resign. The “smoking gun” White House tape revealing Nixon’s efforts to get the FBI to stop the Watergate investigation has made impeachment a certainty. (Of course, had Hubert Humphrey decided to tell what he knew about Nixon’s back-channel attempt as a private citizen to impede Vietnam peace talks before the 1968 election—a blatant violation of the Logan Act—he could’ve been impeached a whole lot sooner.) His career in collapse, Nixon summons his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, whose own career is nearly at its zenith. Kissinger walks into the Lincoln sitting room to find Nixon giddily conducting an invisible orchestra as Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony blares on the stereo.
Much of Lees’s fiction is rooted in fact. Nixon really did summon Kissinger that evening, asking him to recount their many foreign policy coups. Kissinger did his best to assure Nixon that history would honor his greatness. And Nixon did wallow in self-pity, break down in sobs, and invite Kissinger to pray with him. As Robert Dallek reports in Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, for nearly two hours a couple of the most powerful men in the world rode an emotional roller coaster.
Lees takes an important turn away from the historical record, though, with regard to the timing of Nixon’s decision to resign. Nixon had informed Kissinger earlier that evening that he intended to step down, but in the play the president vacillates between surrendering and fighting to the bitter end. This departure should heighten the drama. With the fate of the presidency still up in the air, both men would have secret agendas. Nixon might be staging elaborate snares to test Kissinger’s loyalty, a crucial factor in determining whether he’ll give up his office. Kissinger, whose career will survive only if he can distance himself from the ruined president, must simultaneously coax Nixon out of office and secure an assurance that Nixon will urge his successor to keep him on as secretary of state—camouflaging his power grab as an effort to burnish Nixon’s legacy.
But Lees fails to maintain the tension of the high-stakes poker game he’s set up. The uninterrupted single act often meanders and repeats itself. And too often, Lees has Nixon and Kissinger play out their triumphs, impersonating Mao or Brezhnev or Meir for each other. The device is alternately entertaining and cheap: each time the men reenact past moments, Lees seems to be admitting he can’t find enough dramatic urgency in the present.
This remounting of a 2000 Writers’ Theatre hit only aggravates the script’s weakness. Instead of encouraging his actors to play their cards close to the vest, director Michael Halberstam makes Nixon and Kissinger open books to each other. Within ten minutes, Kissinger the master negotiator gives away the game, literally shaking with indignation when Nixon hints that he might not resign. He hardly conceals a motive from that point forward. Nixon, meanwhile, spends the evening chasing his emotional tail rather than going after anything he might need from the other man. In lieu of engaging them in a sublimated contest, the production mostly puts the pair on display. They perform routines for the audience as well as each other.
Halberstam may have been aiming to heighten the quasi-absurdity of the script with a layer of vaudeville shtick—not a bad strategy when the script you’re directing requires Henry Kissinger to play Mao Tse-tung as “some kind of outsize Samurai warrior.” But one rarely senses the extreme delicacy of their interpersonal negotiations. You’d never know each man has the power to ruin the other. As a result, no matter how tumultuous either man’s emotions become, Nixon and Kissinger seem to be doing little more than killing time.
The evening’s dramatic flatness is exacerbated by imbalanced performances. Larry Yando knows a thing or two about subtle character shadings, but his Nixon is a brash, erratic amalgam of affectations that border on parody; his entrenched scowl is nearly Dickensian by way of Snidely Whiplash. By contrast William Brown underplays Kissinger for the most part, making him more credibly human but less credibly grounded in the heightened world of this play.
Lees ultimately has little to say about Nixon and Kissinger beyond the obvious—that they were ambitious, paranoid, opportunistic, and brilliant—and so offers slight food for thought. But his speculations ultimately move from the innocuous to the troubling. In the play’s most explicitly surreal scene, Lees’s characters dream up a cynical plan to use military action to give Nixon the kind of domestic clout that might keep his presidency alive. This, of course, was precisely the strategy the real Nixon and Kissinger used repeatedly during the Vietnam war—not to mention their efforts to prevent a settlement to the war until it was politically expedient. To paint this kind of scheme as wild fantasy is a dangerous whitewash of some of America’s darkest hours.v
Care to comment? Find this review on chicagoreader.com. And for more on theater see our blog Onstage.