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Street-corner trash-talkers have nothing on Richard Nixon, the American presidency’s most famous Jew-baiter, commie-hater, fag-basher, East Coast-loather…actually, is there a demographic he didn’t slander on those White House tapes? A guy this inappropriate you couldn’t invent—which makes it all the more satisfying to see him reinvented, hilariously, in Nixon’s Nixon. What’s more delightful is that Russell Lees’ quick-witted comedy does justice to the man’s gifts as well as to his demons—and that when it’s over, you’ll almost miss the old bastard.
In the Round House Theatre’s revival—featuring the same cast that had audiences in stitches circa 1999—Edward Gero’s gloriously awkward Nixon paces the Lincoln sitting room (or a handsome, abstracted version of it, anyway, courtesy of James Kronzer), a sort of invisible Watergate wake trailing after him each time he turns. It’s Nixon’s last night in the White House, see, and the evening is uproariously imagined here, starting with the spectacularly lumpen spectacle of the Crook-in-Chief listening to the thunderous climax of a Tchaikovsky symphony. It’s funny and sad, that—Nixon, flailing his arms, imagining he’s in charge of the orchestra—if only because he’s not really in charge of anything anymore, and because he’ll spend the next 90 minutes flailing about in search of an alternative to the ignominy of resignation. There’s no way out, of course, but when the cornered rat is as tricky as Dick Nixon, watching him squirm can be awfully entertaining.
Conrad Feininger plays Henry Kissinger, that Teutonic narcissist, with eyes bugging ever more spectacularly behind those chunky black spectacles and an accent that’s all shuttle-diplomatisch—it’s German, sure, but it comes and goes depending on how hard he’s scheming.
And scheme he does, observing his boss’ flameout and thinking only of its implications for his own trajectory. Feininger has the Mitteleuropean-playboy thing down cold in the early going—he’s come to help ease Nixon out the door, to administer the coup de grâce, to offer one last bit of wise cutthroat counsel. But let the boss mention those tapes—much less suggest that Kissinger’s less-diplomatic utterances might be preserved on them—and watch that tuxedoed urbanity go out the window.
If Feininger’s Kissinger is responsible for much of the evening’s hilarity, it’s Gero’s Nixon who provides much of its heft. When he’s not looking for a way out, he wants to relive the glory days—“You be Brezhnev, I’ll be me,” he cajoles, topping up his tumbler. And such is the persuasive sway a drunken chief executive holds over, say, a man who desperately wants to hang on to the secretary of state’s job: Kissinger finds himself reenacting the high points of Beijing and Moscow.
In a comedy about a tragedy starring a president with a flair for public spectacle and private awkwardness, these intimate vaudevilles are awfully apt—and their thoroughgoing irreverence makes them awfully funny. But they can be strangely touching, too; Nixon meditates moodily, at one point, on the performative nature of politics, and of how at the game’s highest level, “there’s no backstage” in which to take a breather when the pressure gets to be too much. “The mask,” he broods, “gets stuck.”
(It’s a dangerous gambit for a playwright whose subject would live a long Halloweeny afterlife, but one that both Lees and Gero execute with aplomb.)
Moreover, these desperate twilight-of-the-gods skits are double-edged reminders—clever playwright—of what a gift was squandered on the one hand, and on the other of what megalomaniacal madnesses might have come if Nixon had indeed tried to hang on a few weeks longer. As Lees’ West Wing vaudevillians tap-dance later and later into the night, their rehearsal of triumphs past morphs into a wild-eyed, brandy-fueled skull session, with master and Machiavel plotting one last appalling escapade in hopes of avoiding that fateful helicopter flight.
It’s a mad fancy, of course, a wag-the-dog writ large. But such is the devilish charm of Lees’ gruesome twosome—and of Jerry Whiddon’s note-perfect production, with its effortlessly charismatic stars—that you almost regret it when the mad light fades from the eyes of Gero’s Nixon, when he sobers up and squares his shoulders
and ascends the stairs of that invisible chopper, when he turns to face the audience one last time in defeat, to flash that final, inevitable “V.”