Judith Ivey in Dirty Tricks(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Judith Ivey in Dirty Tricks
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Marthas and dirty tricks are in the news and in the ether these days. No need to explain the prevalence of dirty tricks during a major election campaign. Right now, Martha references track to the recently imprisoned Martha Stewart; but there was a time a few decades ago when the name summoned the image of motormouth Martha Mitchell, wife of John Mitchell, Richard Nixon's attorney general and chairman of the Committee for the Re-election of the President.

It must be the force of the dirty-tricks-and-Martha zeitgeist that's caused the appearance in Manhattan within two months of not one but a pair of plays about the famous '70s Martha. First there was the Women Center Stage presentation of Jodi Rothe's Martha Mitchell Speaks, with Patricia Barry as the eponymous figure and Bill Buell doing brief duty as her husband. Now there's John Jeter's pungently and pointedly titled Dirty Tricks, with Judith Ivey as Martha. So alike in intent are the shows -- one a strict monologue, the other virtually a monologue -- that both resorted to the same couple of quotes in their promotional material to underline the angry housewife's significance. "If it hadn't been for Martha, there'd have been no Watergate," former President Nixon told David Frost in 1977. "Martha Mitchell began causing a sensation the minute her sling-back pumps hit the ground in Washington," columnist and President nemesis Helen Thomas expounded.

Thomas was in a position to know, because it was to her that Martha regularly got on the horn and blabbed about what she knew of the explosive Watergate situation. (In Martha Mitchell Speaks, the phone addict rode a pink Princess, as the real article supposedly did; on Neil Patel's crowded set representing several boudoirs, the lady mostly uses a blue one.) It was Thomas who printed much of what she learned from a woman who, despite disliking Dick and Pat Nixon for snubbing her whenever they could, remained loyal to their White House occupancy until she decided that her husband had been designated the scapegoat for Watergate chicanery.

Martha rings Thomas plenty in Dirty Tricks, the action of which takes place on August 4, 1974 -- the day Richard Nixon announced that he was resigning from his vaunted position. It was a banner day for Martha: She felt vindicated for her behavior over the previous few months, when she inaugurated a series of actions that may have been behind an assault upon her in a California hotel and were definitely behind her being slapped with the label of incipient madness. (Note to Sharon Bush: See this play pronto.)

Using a Mike Wallace interview that Martha is due to give as an excuse for her to tape record her thoughts, dramatist Jeter has the sore woman recapitulate her history as a thorn in the side of fellow Republicans. She recalls how she carried on at social events, during interviews, and at home. (Video designer Sage Marie Carter throws newsreel and television footage on the back walls to add context.) When first seen, Martha's waking from a nightmare that's perhaps intended to imply the nightmare she's living. Throughout the play, she addresses her absent husband. She relives the hotel mugging -- which, incidentally, wasn't witnessed by anyone else and has yet to be cleared up. In time, the information given adds up to her alienation of her husband and the collapse of their marriage.

Judith Ivey in Dirty Tricks(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Judith Ivey in Dirty Tricks
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Dirty Tricks is more of a character sketch than a finished portrait, and it contains an inordinate amount of awkward exposition. In case the audience doesn't know or remember the complaints leveled against her, Martha rants, "Calling me psychotic -- saying I was drunk." There's also a lot of yelling at John Mitchell, who's supposedly in the next room. Watching Martha finally savor victory is gratifying but doesn't compensate for a fuller version of her life. (Comparing the two Martha plays, I'd comment that they both give similar glimpses at what was going on beneath the lady's elaborate coiffeurs but that Martha Mitchell Speaks does so with a minimum of extraneous fuss.)

Trotting out Martha by her lonesome -- and she's as lonesome as phone-bound Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number -- is advantageous in terms of metaphor. Trying to get the attention of a man who isn't present implies problems that wives encounter with husbands prepared to betray them in favor of the men with whom they've bonded; wishing it were otherwise becomes an occupation. Recalling a within-the-Beltway fete with party bigwigs, Martha says, "One can then only assume that I'm, um, we're the most important women in the country!"

Any production featuring two-time Tony Award winner Judith Ivey is fortunate. This one's a Derby winner, since the chameleon-like Ivey resembles Martha Mitchell enough to make up the other half of a separated-at-birth layout. In last year's Women on Fire, Ivey had only the benefit of a ribbon or a scarf to play 12 women, so playing this role while shrugging Joseph G. Aulisi's costumes on and off and adjusting Paul Huntley's wig with add-ons is as easy as falling off a log for her. She runs Mitchell's gamut of emotions with great aplomb and with a Pine Bluff, Arkansas accent in fine finish. The thespian's tricks she pulls out of her bag aren't at all dirty; they're the kind that make momentary magic with a serviceable script.