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Actor Edward Gero is discovered with his back to the audience at the outset of Russell Lees’ searchingly satirical comedy, Nixon’s Nixon, but even if his character’s name weren’t double-referenced in that two-word title, you’d know whom he’s playing instantly.
There’s something about the hunch of the shoulders, the stiffness, the unnatural swing of the arms that identifies Gero’s Richard M. Nixon more clearly than any tricks a makeup artist might conjure. In fact, when the performer turns around, animatedly conducting the symphony that’s blaring from a White House stereo, the portrait actually becomes a trifle less precisealmost as if shaving the hairline back in the right places and properly roughing in the five-o’clock shadow only draws attention to the details of bone structure that aren’t quite right.
Never mind. Stage impersonation is only partly a matter of mimicry. There’s comparatively little about Conrad Feininger to remind you physically of Henry Kissinger, but when he comes on, ramrod-straight and bristling with rectitude and purpose, you recognize him in an instant, too.
The playwright has brought them together on the evening of Aug. 7, 1974, Nixon’s last night in the White House. Published reports say such a meeting did take place, with the two men drinking brandy, praying together, and reminiscing for just over an hour. Lees has imagined that hour as a caustic burlesque for diplomats, with a bit of Richard III thrown in for good measure.
Burlesque leads. “You be me,” Nixon urges his adviser after a few too many sips from his snifter, “and I’ll be Brezhnev.” Kissinger naturally demurs at first but ultimately can’t refuse. And as time passes, he loses his inhibitions and seems to rather enjoy turning up his suit jacket’s collar to become a wickedly credible Mao Tse Tung. Each step is small, but his willingnessas well as the evening’s hilaritykeeps growing. By the time the two men start imagining a Byzantine plot by which they might keep the embattled president in power, and Nixon briefly transforms himself into a jowly Golda Meir, they’ve crossed the border into outright vaudeville.
Which is not to suggest there aren’t serious currents to Nixon’s Nixon. The playwright is exploring the toxic nature of power and the tug of history on the individual who wields itthemes that, you can’t help noting, have played themselves out in dramas about other Richards. It helps, of course, that Gero is a Shakespeare Theatre regular. When he’s totting up the deaths that have happened on his watch, devastated by the enormity of the numbers, he might be any of a dozen kings from Elizabethan drama.
William Foeller’s production strikes a nifty satiric balance between the uproariousness you expect and the pathos you don’t. His staging gets plenty of laughssome from dialogue (“I’d have made a better pope than Kennedy would have”), others from visuals (the Mao summit rendered as a fight from The Karate Kid). But it also turns wrenching at the oddest times. Would you guess, for instance, that a line about being “banished from the kingdom of power and wandering some hellish golf course” could sound tragic? Well, it does…and it still manages to get a laugh. You’ll be missing something if you don’t head out to Round House to see how.
For Hoboken Station, the oddly structured dramedy that marks the debut of a new stage company called Charter Theatre, the floor of Arena’s Old Vat Theater has been piled inches thick with pages torn from novels. Press releases say that more than 2,000 paperback volumes were shredded to create this literary sea, and since the leading character is a failed writer and the tone of the enterprise might best be termed pulp-fiction noir, the stage image makes a certain amount of sense.
It also, unfortunately, makes walking difficult for the evening’s three actors, and considering the peculiar dramatic terrain playwright Chris Stezin already has them crisscrossing, they don’t need that extra impediment.
The story they’re trying to bring to comic life is one of loss and of coping. Valerie (Kathleen Coons), a 19-year-old, terminally self-absorbed art student, has accused her parents of sexually abusing her as a child, an allegation that has destroyed her family, but for which police detective/failed novelist Ingram (Tim Carlin) can find no evidence. His own family having been pulled apart by quite different circumstances, Ingram approaches Valerie’s case with a chip the size of New Jersey on his shoulder. His skepticism puts him at odds with her therapist (Deb Gottesman), whose professional demeanor masks a too-credulous heart. Together and separately, they try to help Valerie wrestle with her demons.
Rather than approach his psychological detective story in linear fashion, Stezin has fragmented it and then mixed and matched scenes from Valerie’s present and Ingram’s past (in which Gottesman stands in, a trifle confusingly, as his ex-wife). He’s also set the detective and the shrink to competing over who can come up with more hard-boiled one-liners. The result is an evening that has the odd effect of being at once overwritten and thinly written, with characters who chatter away in archly noirish dialogue, yet who seem, after 90 minutes’ acquaintance, little more than ciphers.
Understandably, while Christopher Lane has managed to stage most of Stezin’s individual scenes persuasively enough, he hasn’t been able to create from them a coherent whole. Which is not to say he hasn’t tried. If anything, the director has too many devices going at oncethat symbolic set (which he designed himself), an alternately realistic and expressionistic lighting scheme, and sound effects that prove significantly more perplexing than helpful.
Still, he was bound to be stymied by a script that begins Edward Gorey-style with a nursery rhyme about death, and that expends far too much of its energy thereafter on wresting laughs from a tale it intends to conclude with tears. The troupe’s interest in nurturing new work is admirable, as is the professional gloss it brings to this debut. But if Charter Theatre is serious about its mission of developing new plays, it’s going to have to be tougher about editing its playwrights. There are glimmers of talent in Stezin’s writing, but they’re swamped in Hoboken Station by stylistic excesses that the company’s three-step development process (two levels of readings, followed by a full production) really should have weeded out.CP