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Zoot Suit and Nixon's Nixon

The theater season once was a September-to-May affair, not counting summer stock barns and tents. But those days are gone. It's not just air conditioning that's made the urban playhouse a year-round place to go, but changing social patterns and audience expectations. In Chicago, that means the downtown Broadway houses offer touring shows all through the hot months, while many subscription houses--including such leadership troupes as the Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Marriott theaters--open new productions in late June or July.

Recently opened productions at the Goodman and at the tiny Writers' Theatre in suburban Glencoe have us revisiting history. In Nixon's Nixon at the Writers' Theatre, we relive the evening of August 7, 1974--the night before the resignation--with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. In Zoot Suit at the Goodman Theatre, we relive not only a chunk of 1940s Los Angeles social and political history, but theater history as well.

Zoot Suit was developed by the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, in 1978. It seems incredible, but in a city with such a large and vital Latino community,

LA's leading non-profit theater never had never before tapped either the history of the Barrio or its audience potential. Written by Luis Valdez, founder of El Teatro Campesino, this documentary drama with music changed all that. In retelling the story of a notorious Chicano murder case in 1942--the so-called Sleepy Lagoon Murder--and racially motivated riots in 1943 by U. S. servicemen against zoot suit-wearing Mexican gang members, Valdez celebrated and validated the city's vibrant Mexican culture with an electrifying and entertaining large-cast theatrical event.

A sensation, Zoot Suit launched the career of Edward James Olmos, and ran for over a year in a transfer to the Aquarius Theatre on Sunset Boulevard. But it quickly and dismally failed on Broadway in 1979, possibly because the New York Latino community largely is Puerto Rican and not Mexican. This important and memorable show then disappeared, perhaps regarded as unproducable because of its requirement for Latino actors, or the feeling that it would not appeal to a broad audience (even though the Taper production disproved that).

The Goodman Theatre production, running through July 30, is only the second staging of Zoot Suit since Broadway. Even so, it seems retrograde that the Goodman took so long to come to this show, given the presence in Chicago of a very large Mexican community and three Latino theater companies. It's the project of Cuban-born director Henry Godinez, a Goodman artistic associate and founder of Teatro Vista, one of the three Latino troupes.

Zoot Suit retains all its vigor and theatrical dazzle in the Goodman production. A versatile showman as well as a politician, Valdez has crafted a coloful agit-prop entertainment that uses music, dance, living newspaper techniques, narration, and dramatization to tell its tale of justice denied, bigotry fed by war hysteria, and the eventual bittersweet triumph of truth. One never confuses the good guys and the bad guys in this blatantly--but enjoyably--manipulative work.

Godinez has assembled a fine, large cast of top local Latino and Anglo performers, plus a few choice imports such as Marco Rodriquez as the sly and stylish El Pachuco, the narrator of the work and the embodiment of the spirit of the young Mexican males in LA's 38th Street Gang. Framed by the giant newspaper headlines of Christopher Acebo's set, the large cast seems to dance and strut its way through the show, even when not engaged in the jitterbugs of Randy Duncan's choreography.

If there is a flaw, it's that Godinez's approach is too respectful. Nan Zabriskie's costumes are lavish, colorful and period-accurate, but they never exaggerate even when they might. The cast is fervent, but never feverish, even though a type of feverishness feeds the events and is woven through them. The accused gang members and their families are calmly dignified--never outraged, even when outrage is justified.

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.

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