Kristin Griffith in Stretch (a fantasia)
(© Jim Baldassare)
Kristin Griffith in Stretch (a fantasia)
(© Jim Baldassare)
There was a moment in history when the world seemed focused on Richard Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, the woman responsible for erasing key portions of the audio tapes which might have implicated him in the Watergate conspiracy. Were the erasures accidental as she had claimed, or were they an act of loyalty to her longtime employer, party leader, and friend?

In Susan Bernfeld's structurally ambitious drama, Stretch (a fantasia), now being presented by New Georges at the Living Theater, the woman we meet (played brilliantly by Kristin Griffith) is certainly capable of the latter. Whether muttering bitterly about our nation of "John Q. Know-Nothings" or grandly dragging on a cigarette and holding forth about Nixon's substance and decency, she is a savvy but highly partisan political observer whose fierce loyalty might have easily compelled her to take one for the team.

The play is set during Woods' final months confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home, around the time of the 2004 Presidential elections. The naturalistic scenes in the nursing home alternate with boldly stylized dream sequences, in which a younger and more vital Woods springs up from her wheelchair to hold forth in declamatory direct address, often lit against a plush red curtain as if she's a vaudeville performer. In what is the production's most vivid and effective touch under Emma Griffin's assured direction, the curtain regularly rises to reveal a band performing musical underscoring for Woods' from-the-hip, worldly-wise declarations.

Indeed, as long as the play is squarely focused on Woods and the contradictions in her character, it's engaging, often darkly funny, and briskly entertaining -- in large part thanks to Griffith's bravura performance. She holds on to Woods' fierce intelligence and conviction even when the character's fanciful fantasies veer toward absurdism (such as when Woods imagines herself to be Deep Throat). Furthermore, Griffith segues easily from the more dynamic younger Woods to the woman's older, more baldly cynical self, accomplishing the quick-change convincingly with a bit of a squint, a hunch in her posture, and a note of cragginess to her voice, but without the benefit of added make-up.

The play, however, is far less successful when its focus shifts away from Woods. In the nursing home, she is given a sounding board in the thankless character of Bob (Evan Thompson), a retired school teacher who wants her to share her story with the other patients. Their relationship doesn't deepen throughout the play, and their scenes don't illuminate Woods any more at the end than they do at the beginning.

Furthermore, it's something of a surprise when Bob is given the speech that feels close to the playwright's overarching statement about the political apathy of today's youth. However, the two young men in the play -- Woods' sweet-tempered orderly (Brian Gerard Murray) and the Meth-addicted buddy whom he shares bong hits with (Eric Clem) -- seem like the kind of clueless characters who would be uninterested in political engagement no matter what decade they were slacking through. In fact, they're no more credible as real young people than Beavis and Butthead, making the playwright's final twist unconvincing.

Thankfully, that plot development is also unnecessary. The main attraction of spending time with Rose Mary Woods is the reminder we need of the importance of political watchfulness.