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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Since several trees have been sacrificed to chronicle and analyze Richard Nixon life and politics, his complex personality and his marriage, there may not be an urgent need to revisit the saga of the man who won and lost the biggest prize in American politics. — even if the cast included a cute puppy. That said, Checkers, the new play by filmmaker Douglas McGrath that just opened at the Vineyard Theatre, takes an intriguing approach to the events leading up to and following that Checkers incident,. The cast, doesn't include a faux Checkers, but it's top drawer. The projection designs and all-around clever staging make it one of the most watchable shows on or off-Broadway.
Unlike two other notable plays about Nixon — Nixon's Nixon , about Nixon's last desperate days as president, and Frost/Nixon which was a post-Watergate dodudrama — McGrath's piece focuses on Nixon during the vice presidential brouhaha over an alleged fund to pay for his private expenses. A few scenes just before his presidential run bookend the Checkers crisis. This enables McGrath to show Nixon as considerably warmer than indicated in accounts of the marriage during his presidency.
But don't expect Checkers to be a whitewash. In fact, despite the display of affection between the Nixons, he ends up less trustworthy than ever. What we see is a man who would not only dishonor his oath of office with "dirty tricks" but dishonor a promise made to the wife he loved but not enough to betray her for his bigger love for politics. Since her loyalty was more unshakable than his, that broken promise forced her into a life she never wanted.
Actually Checkers is as much, if not more, Pat Nixon's story than her husband's. The superb Kathryn Erbe shows us just enough of the "plastic Pat" who was never able to break free of the stand by your man mantra that women of her era believed in and that she personified. But Erbe also makes it clear that there was a lot more to this woman. She's smart. She's sensitive. Given that she swallowed her shame and disgust at the way that Checkers speech made them forfeit their privacy and lived with his broken promise about trying for the big prize, she's the play's most sympathetic character, if not its tragic heroine.
Pat's explanation of why she sees the Checkers speech as the nadir of his (and her) political ventures and didn't want him to tackle a presidential run underscore that their initial closeness contained seeds of a shared paranoia: "But even if we win it, like with Kennedy, they take it away from us. What chance do we have out there, Dick, two poor kids from nowhere? We’ll always be poor to them. It’s their playing field and they don’t want people like us on it. We’re too common for them! I mean, my God-- I like landscape paintings!" The difference is that he tended to act on that paranoia more aggressively.
McGrath's portrait of Pat as more than she appeared to be may be hard for anyone remembering her mostly for that "plastic Pat" image but then the dialogue for all his characters is his and not based on any actual transcripts. His view of Pat is borne out by other writers; notably History professor Mary C. Brenan's biography, “Pat Nixon: Embattled First Lady, which also took a look at a woman who was more than a mirror image of her husband. Even though she hated politics and the public limelight, she more than made the best of her decision to support his ambition, especially during their many trips abroad.
Anthony LaPaglia is persuasively authentic in assuming Nixon's awkward body language and speech pattern, without trying to do a straight imitation. He's convincingly responsive to his wife, and just as convincingly unable to put her before his ambition. McGrath gives him enough lines to make his more repulsive Tricky Dick side and the alcoholism all too clear.
The rest of the ensemble actors, several doubling up in minor roles, are also excellent. Lewis Stadlen is right on the mark in the play's third major role of Nixon's vulgar campaign manager Murray Chotiner.
Typical of any play about a very familiar, much written about historical figures, there are really no surprises here. You know that Nixon will be Vice-President and President. You even know what happens after the play's final scene. Thus, the watchability factor has less to do with the story line than the way it's been put together here.
Director Terry Kinney and his design team have created a basically simple set that serves as the Nixons' Fifth Avenue apartment before their move to Blair House in DC, a TV studio, various hotel rooms and trains. Set designer Neil Patel has left room at the top of that setting for some of the most entertaining scenes involving Eisenhower (John Otovino who also plays several minor parts) and Mamie )Kelly Coffield Park (in the funniest of her several parts) on one side, and Eisenhower's strategists Herbert Brownell and Sherman Adams (Robert Stanton and Kevin O'Rourke) on the other. Stanton is deliciously creepy as the Eisenhower henchman who makes it clear to Nixon his function is to be the General's satellite, the bad guy to his good cop ("Generals stand in the sunlight on the hilltop. You're the soldier. You sling the mud and the shit"). Kinney also makes good use of one of the theater's aisles.
Adding enormous vitality to the stage pictures are Darrel Maloney's spectacularly effective and original projections. Also worth a special mention is David Weiner's lighting, especially during the final scene when Nixon makes his broken promise to Pat official but tells Chotiner to "keep the circle" tight. Weiner illustrates this by tightening the circle of light on Nixon's phone and the nearby Pat.
Without the inventive direction and stagecraft, having LaPaglia actually deliver the entire Checkers speech would be problematic. But interspersed with Pat's pained and Chotiner's delighted reactions, as well as the comments from the Republicans above the base set, this is the highlight of the hour and forty-five minute, intermissionless play.
Listing to that speech is also a timely reminder of why it is memorable. Besides what it did for Nixon, the Checkers speech forever changed the way politicians use the power of TV to connect to an audience. Nixon heightened the novelty of it all with his agonizingly detailed yet riveting details of his personal finances.
Of course, the power of TV doesn't always work to the politician's advantage, As Nixon learned during his debate with Kennedy, and President Obama during the recent presidential campaign, the power of TV doesn't always work to a politician's advantage. But it sure works for LaPaglia's Nixon and his colleagues at the Vineyard.
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