nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 28, 2012
Roughly one quarter of the running time of the new play Checkers is given over to the speech that became known by that moniker; it's the most compelling (and best-written) section of the piece. The rest of Douglas McGrath's script, alas, is usually not compelling at all, and often quite dull: it reduces the character and career of Richard Milhous Nixon to the stuff of a 1970s TV movie-of-the-week. He, and we, deserve better.
The conceit of the play is that Murray Chotiner (who had been Nixon's campaign manager in the 1950s) is trying to convince him to run for the presidency in 1968. Murray comes to visit Dick and Pat in their New York City apartment on an evening in 1966, in hopes of persuading his old friend to return to politics after his defeats by JFK and Pat Brown earlier in the decade. This occasions a lengthy flashback as Dick recalls the pivotal moment in his first vice presidential run in 1952, which becomes the center of Checkers.
We then watch as Dick struggles against the insiders running Eisenhower's campaign who seem ready to sabotage him at every turn, and also against rumors that he has accepted illegal money in the guise of campaign contributions. He's eventually forced to buy time on TV to deliver a public address that will clear his name, something he does masterfully in the speech that restored his reputation and made him more famous than ever. Pat, meanwhile, decries the nastiness of politics that her husband appears to thrive on.
Marital discord is, in fact, the core tension in the play; McGrath seems to want us to really feel for Mrs. Nixon and her (mostly) silent suffering in the face of her husband's infidelity (he promises her that he will quit politics and then reneges). But I never really believed in this theme, because it didn't jive with my own memory of the Nixons or, more important, the image of them that I carried into the theater. McGrath's Dick is wrought neither large (the way Shakespeare presented his tragic kings) nor satiric; we're supposed to accept him as a fundamentally swell guy whose insecurities push him toward an elusive and difficult goal (that we know he will actually achieve). Where's the drama in that?
It's a pity because the story of how Nixon saved his skin with his humble talk of a puppy and Pat's Republican cloth coat IS the stuff of drama. But that story isn't the emphasis here, title notwithstanding.
Kathryn Erbe is the play's anchor as sad, noble Pat while Anthony LaPaglia fights his own good looks and natural speaking voice to kind-of impersonate Nixon. His performance made me think, more than once, that the play might have been better had it been fiction, so that both actor and author might have been freed from the shackles of history to explore the subjects that seem to interest McGrath.
One more point: director Terry Kinney's work here is surprisingly leaden, halting the play with lengthy transitions after each of the piece's numerous short scenes to move around the furniture on Neil Patel's fairly minimal set, even though Darrel Maloney's elaborate projections are doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of defining locale.
And finally: while good actors like Robert Stanton, John Ottavino, and Kevin O'Rourke are largely wasted in supporting roles that amount to little more than cameos, the evening ultimately belongs to that consummate pro Lewis J. Stadlen, who makes Murray Chotiner a force to be reckoned with. In fact, he's the guy I left Checkers curious to learn more about. Maybe there's another play still to write about him?