But the biggest missing factor, for which neither Godinez nor the Goodman can compensate, is the electrifying interplay between Zoot Suit and a heavily Latino audience, which those of us who saw the original production were able to experience. The shouts, the applause, the cheers, the laughter at the Spanish-language jokes which we Anglos do not understand, the back-and-forth banter between cast and audience, the shock of recognition were only the surface excitement. The subtext was the sensation of a city exorcising an ugly, old demon; and of a culture and community finding new and joyous empowerment in theater.
Nixon's Nixon, running through August 6 at the Writers' Theatre, is just the opposite of Zoot Suit; it's a play about disempowerment. It shows us the night in 1974 when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger get drunk together in the White House, as Kissinger guides Nixon into accepting the necessity of resigning the next day. A surprise hit earlier this year, the current run is a summer season remount in the tiny, but comfortable, studio theater at the back of Books on Vernon in Glencoe.
To the credit of playwright Russell Lees and director Michael Halberstam, they do not choose the easy path of making this show merely a 90-minute satire of two larger-than-life figures, and of oft-parodied historic events. Nonetheless, it is a fantasy, with Nixon and Kissinger "acting out" their greatest hits, including conversations with Mao, Brezhnev, Golda Meir, and even with JFK, with much parody therein.
What emerges is the egotism of power as Kissinger disses Gerald Ford and worries that Ford won't keep him on, and reassures Nixon about his place in history. Nixon, half off his rocker, nonetheless is crazy like a fox. Told by Kissinger that American losses in Vietnam were 50,000, Nixon looks at the skewed portrait of Lincoln on the wall (of Rick Paul's clever cartoon-panel set) and declares, "Look at the body count in the Civil War! Lots more! And he's on Mount Rushmore!" Or, commenting on his re-election, Nixon says, "Christ, did they elect me! What a landslide. I appealed to the Richard Nixon in everybody." "It's the great American story," Kissinger replies. "Requited ambition." This is writing which is sharp and dark and funny and true.
Halberstam has engaged two of Chicago's most accomplished actors, Larry Yando and William Brown, as Nixon and Kissinger, respectively. Both are masters of character-based comedy (vs. gag or physical comedy) who are too smart to emotionally shortchange Richard and Henry. Both are fiery, disingenuous, frightened, chummy, self-serving, betrayed and betrayers by turns, without ever allowing themselves to seem as bizarre as the circumstances in which they find themselves. There is, in short, truth beyond the oddity of the play and the players.