nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 2, 2006
It may be just happenstance that MCC Theater has decided to revive Russell Lees's insightful, prescient play Nixon's Nixon this particular fall; or maybe there's some subtle message that artistic directors Robert LuPone and Bernard Telsey are hoping we'll glean from this piece, which imagines what President Richard M. Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger might have talked about during their (historically factual) meeting on August 7, 1974, the night before Nixon announced his resignation. Let's listen to what Lees has them say as they make a last-ditch attempt to maneuver Nixon out of his political mess:
KISSINGER: It's hopeless. You'd need an international crisis.
NIXON: That's what I was thinking...
KISSINGER: Not much margin for error. We need something...it would be good if it didn't directly involve the U.S., that way, if it gets out of control, you know, who cares?
KISSINGER: We time the incidents according to the press.
NIXON: Let 'em know they've crossed me. Let 'em know they've pushed me too far. Cities crumble. Nations catch fire.
KISSINGER: They'll never recover.
NIXON: Let 'em impeach me, let the hippies and the Harvard judges and the pinko congressmen and the fag reporters impeach me with the world on fire.
In 1996, when Lees wrote this, I'll bet people thought, could American political leaders ever be so megalomaniacally cynical to trade human lives to stay in power? I think I would have called this the stuff of fantasy back then; Nixon did, after all, resign. Today, though...
Nixon's Nixon fictionalizes history with the luxury of perspective, and now, some 30 years after the events depicted in the play, its authenticity (which is not the same as factual accuracy) and, more important, its usefulness, feel well nigh indisputable. Lees bends whatever happened when these two men, arguably the most powerful in the world, had their last secret meeting; he shapes it with grand dramatic skill, providing each of his characters with potent subtexts that propel the encounter. Nixon knows he must resign but wants to be talked out of it. Kissinger does not want to lose his position as Secretary of State. Both men's egos are far out of control. One seems to be on the verge of hysteria and paranoia, the other is steely and sane. Which brand of monomaniac is the more dangerous?
Lees's script is often quite funny, but it's also an empathetic account of an honest-to-God tragedy, with Nixon its grand heroic figure, approaching greatness but for a gnawing, fatal flaw. He plays with the caricature "I am not a crook" Nixon that we remember, but he imbues his protagonist with depth and complexity. The moment where Nixon enumerates those who died under his watch, for example, is enormously moving. Kissinger's more calculating, results-driven style—a more modern approach to the game of politics that has become a norm, I fear—is impossible to admire and tougher to respect here.
Jim Simpson's staging of the piece (he was also the original director in 1996) is assured, supplying tension and suspense where ultimately none should be (as we know the outcome even before the play begins). Gerry Bamman and Steve Mellor are also re-creating their work from ten years ago, and they're spectacular. Mellor captures the cadences of Kissinger's accented but weirdly uninflected speech perfectly, and he projects the aloofness, superiority, and opportunism of this man along with the magnetism and brilliance. Bamman, meanwhile, feels downright irreplaceable as Nixon. He conveys the public Nixon that we remember from TV clips mostly in his posture and his stiff, loping stride; he doesn't worry about the voice pattern as much, concentrating instead on finding all of the layers that Lees has built into this characterization. His performance manages to be bitingly satirical and heroically tragic at the same time.
Invaluable as political drama, Nixon's Nixon is also top-notch theatre for the thinking person, brimming with ideas both historically compelling and eerily resonant. I missed MCC's production of this piece the first time around, so I'm grateful that they've brought it back on the boards, whatever the reason for its return.