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Dirty Tricks

I think as long as there are politicians, there's going to be a need for someone like Martha to be calling for the truth --- John Jeter
Oh Lord, I've always been a talker. Even back in High School, I remember I wrote outside my yearbook picture. . .'I love its gentle warble, I love its gentle flow, I love to wind my tongue up, and I love to let it go.' --- Martha Mitchell on what led up to such press definitions of her as "Martha, the Mouth that Roared" and "The Mouth of the South."
Judith Ivey as Martha Mitchell
Judith Ivey
(Photo: Michael Daniels)
John Ashcroft, our current Attorney General, may be giving a daily prayer of thanks that his wife tends to stay quietly in the background, unlike Martha Mitchell, the spouse of John Mitchell, the man who held that post during Richard Nixon's corrupt administration. The Southern Belle whose midnight phone calls to press luminaries like Helen Thomas and Bob Woodward earned her nicknames such as "the mouth that roared" is once again having her say as channeled by Judith Ivey in a new one-woman show aptly called Dirty Tricks at the Public's Anspacher Theater.

Readers too young to have experienced the Watergate scandal first-hand may not realize how much it resembled a modern Greek tragedy veering towards keystone cop comedy with its bizarre dramatis personae whose actions one would be more likely to associate with a banana republic than the world's foremost democracy: burglaries, bribes and cover-ups, not to mention assaults and possible murders. To help bring the tempest in the political teapot to a boil there was the opinionated Mitchell, the crazy lady who turned out not to be so crazy and prompted psychologist Brendan Maher to coin the term "Martha Mitchell Effect" for a belief mistakenly diagnosed as a delusion.

This isn't the first ever theatrical take on the late Mrs. Mitchell. Just a couple of years ago Thomas Doran's This is Martha Speaking approached the story through three characters (Martha, husband John and Richard Nixon). It premiered in Martha's home town of Pine Bluff, Arkansa. Dirty Tricks, features just one performer (Am I the only one who'd like to see the flood of solo plays stemmed?). It can't be faulted for not being timely. In case you need specifics, the next presidential election is just weeks away and legal teams are preparing to avoid a replay of the disastrous Florida vote four years ago. The Nixon resignation, which was hastened by having "the mouth of the South" blow the lid off the infamous election-stealing Watergate caper, is marking its thirtieth anniversary. President Bush has sidelined the widely respected Helen Thomas so that she no longer gets to ask the first question at press conferences or the concluding "Thank you, Mr. President." And, of course, there's the other Martha pacing her cell as Ivey's Martha paces her New York apartment.

Judith Ivey wraps her formidable acting skills around the role that has her on stage, and occasionally in the aisles, for the play's full ninety minutes. Thanks to a handy hair piece by wig wizard Paul Huntley to elevate her already mountain-high upsweep and Joseph G. Aulisi's clever use of a few scarves and capelets to transform a basic pink slip and robe into a wardrobe, Ms. Ivey can change her appearance right before our eyes.

This is a big, juicy role and the Texas-born Ivey gives it the right syrupy accent. She captures the canniness and gumption beneath the bigoted dumb blonde surface and wrings every possible drop of humor from John Jeter's first playwriting effort -- essentially structured as a day with a desperate and manic Martha, plus flashbacks to round out a patchwork of widely available facts. That day happens to be August 8, 1974 -- the day Nixon resigned.

Jeter's script ties the monologues to Martha's preparation for an interview with Mike Wallace and director Margaret Whitton has mounted it with enough stage business to create a theatrical context and strong sense of time and place. To compensate for the dirth of players, Neil Patel's handsomely shabby New York apartment is filled with lots of illustrative props. These include three phones which seem to miraculously reach the people at the other end without dialing a number and a television set at the foot of Martha's bed which allows the bedroom walls to periodically spring to life with Sage Marie Carter's video clips of the events and people who were part of this political travesty. Audience members who lived through the Nixon era will enjoy spotting long gone but then familiar faces -- reporters like Howard K. Smith as well as the gang of scoundrels whose antics were almost too wild to be believed. The videos are hardly likely to provide younger audience members with sufficient historic enlightenment.

Ms. Ivey's performance has its moving as well as funny moments, though there are times when the monologues are more exhausting than exhilarating and the play never really rises above carricature. In an interview with Blade Jeeter stated that he felt Mitchell was a character with great appeal to gay men -- "Not quite Joan Crawford kind of camp, but she had the big drag queen hair and a very quick wit," He may have something there. Without Ivey to add her own dash of drag appeal to the not to be silenced Martha, future productions of Dirty Tricks might well work best with a guy playing this explosive blonde bombshell.

Whoever plays her, Jeter is clearly convinced she deserves star rather than footnote in history billing. In the cautionary closing he's written for her the crazy lady sounds alarmingly sensible: "It is your duty to question authority, as sovereign as it maybe. That's how this country came to be in the first place. . .America can not afford to turn their cheek from the 'goings-on' over at the White House. Because my darling, with your cheek turned, you'll never see what's going on behind your back."

Note: See the end of the production notes below for some facts about Martha Mitchell and the Watergate scandal. There's lots more available on the web.

Dirty Tricks
Written by John Jeter
Directed by Margaret Whitton
Cast: Judith Ivey
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Joseph Aulisi
Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge
Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Video Design: Sage Marie Carter.
Hair & Wig Design: Paul Huntley
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Public Theatre/Anspacher Theatre, 425 Lafayette Street, 212/239-6200.
10/5/04 to 11/07/04; opening 10/20/04.
Tuesday - Friday @8pm, Saturday @2pm & 8pm, Sunday @2pm. --$50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 15th press performance
Some Facts About Martha Mitchell and the Watergate Scandal

Martha Mitchell was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas on September 2, 1918. After graduating from Pine Bluff High School, she attended Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri and eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where she met and married John Mitchell, a lawyer and Easterner who ran Richard Nixon's successful 1968 presidential campaign and later became Attorney General. The Mitchells had one daughter and became a popular Washington society, much of their popularity due to Martha's locqatious wit, style and loquaciousness.

The scandal known as the Watergate Break-in because the Democratic National Committee headquarters targeted by the "burglars " was at the Watergate Hotel, ended the Nixon presidency as well as the Mitchell marriage. On June 17, 1972, police apprehended five men attempting to break into and wiretap Democratic party offices. With two other accomplices they were tried and convicted in Jan., 1973. All seven men were either directly or indirectly employees of President Nixon's reelection committee, and many persons, including the trial judge, John J. Sirica, suspected a conspiracy involving higher-echelon government officials (including John Mitchell). In March, James McCord, one of the convicted burglars, wrote a letter to Sirica charging a massive coverup of the burglary.

Martha, determined to protect her husband from what she believed was Nixon's plan to use him as a scapegoat for the break-in scandal began talking to the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and other reporters about matters the Nixon administration (including her husband) preferred keeping in the dark. Increasingly anxious about the loose canon in their midst, the administration leaked word to the press that she had a drinking problem. John Mitchell went so far as to lock his wife in a closet to keep her away from the phone. Martha also claimed that she was once held against her will in a California hotel room and sedated. Mitchell, who was later indicted and jailed, left his wife in 1973, never to see or speak to her again. When he was sentenced in February 1975, he said, "It could have been worse. They could have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha Mitchell."

Martha Mitchell contracted a virulent bone marrow cancer and died on May 30, 1975, without ever again seeing her husband. She was 57. She is buried in Bellwood Cemetery here in Pine Bluff.
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