Two gifted stage performers – Anthony LaPaglia and Kathryn Erbe — are at the top of their game in Douglas McGrath's Checkers at The Vineyard Theatre. Their turns as Richard and Pat Nixon elevate this uneven biodrama, which centers on the future president's personal and political battles in the early 1950s when he was General Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice presidential running mate.
Erbe – best known from her work on television's Law & Order: Criminal Investigation – is visually a dead ringer for Mrs. Nixon, thanks to some spot-on wigs from designer Leah J. Loukas and a seemingly endless array of terrific period ensembles from costume designer Sarah J. Holden. What's more impressive though is the way in which the actress captures both the woman's sweetness and conventionality, as well as her strength (a duality that could, in other hands, be rough for a contemporary audience to accept).
Similarly, LaPaglia – who not only convincingly mimics Nixon's vocal cadences and accent, but whose burly frame and aquiline nose make him eerily resemble the man – creates a portrait that embodies both Nixon's fierceness and his more childlike qualities. There comes a moment – as Nixon waits to hear whether he will continue to be on the Eisenhower ticket – that it seems as if a petulant grade schooler has taken over the man who would one day be the U.S. commander-in-chief.
Nevertheless, McGrath's play -- which is framed as a flashback as Nixon considers entering the presidential arena himself in 1966 -- only occasionally sparks to life as it traces the aftermath of the "scandal" of a secret fund that threatens to derail Nixon's place on Eisenhower's ticket. And it's one particular effort he's forced to make – delivering the now-famed nationwide "Checkers" television broadcast at his own expense to redeem himself to both the Republican party bosses and the American public -- that forms the crux of the 100-minute play.
Part of the problem is that the script fails to credibly establish the motivations of the men working to remove Nixon from the ticket: RNC chairman Herbert Brownell (Robert Stanton) and Sherman Adams (Kevin O'Rourke), who would ultimately become Eisenhower's chief of staff.
Meanwhile, Eisenhower (John Ottavino) and his wife Mamie (Kelly Coffield Park) make only brief, chipper appearances, robbing their characters of any depth, and the unending zingers that McGrath has penned for Nixon's advisor Murray Chotiner (made a winning, foul-mouthed wiseacre by Lewis J. Stadlen) don't jibe with the rest of the play.
Director Terry Kinney's workmanlike staging of the episodic work unfolds in a white drawing room-like environment from Neil Patel. The space transforms to the various locales indicated in the script both elegantly (thanks to black and white projections from Darrel Maloney) and with a certain clunkiness as the performers constantly shift furniture in semi-blackouts.
Indeed, the design is emblematic of the enterprise as a whole, unable to settle on a single style. At times, it seems as if Checkers wants to be both a political drama in the mold of Frost/Nixon and a satire in the old of such musicals as Of Thee I Sing.