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Nixon's Nixon

Russell Lees' 1995 play about an imaginary conversation between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger retains its theatrical power. logo
Gerry Bamman and Steve Mellor in Nixon's Nixon
(© Joan Marcus)
I can't be sure, but I suspect that Richard Nixon is looking down -- or is that looking up? -- and enjoying all the attention he's getting on the world's stages. Across the pond, Frank Langella is reportedly giving a masterful portrayal of the former president in Peter Morgan's critically acclaimed Frost/Nixon. Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away stateside, Gerry Bamman is recreating his superb portrait of Tricky Dick in MCC Theater's 10th-anniversary revival of Russell Lees' clever two-character play Nixon's Nixon.

The 75-minue one-act, which I didn't see in its original outing, should more accurately be titled Kissinger/Nixon. Lees imagines a conversation in the White House's Lincoln Room (simply designed by Kyle Chepulis) between Nixon and then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (brilliantly played by Steve Mellor, who also starred in the show's 1996 production) on the night before Nixon resigned the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

Not unexpectedly, Lees' take on Nixon is far from flattering, often emphasizing the man's petty, childish nature and his failure to grasp the enormity of his criminal behavior and the country's reaction to it. What's more surprising is that Kissinger gets the shorter end of the stick; he's drawn by Lees as a power-hungry hypocrite, more concerned with his own political future than anyone else's, even that of the United States.

As the two share multiple shots of brandy and a few happy reminiscences -- not to mention a high-pitched shouting match or two -- one becomes aware how these seemingly opposite personalities were, in fact, surprisingly well matched. On the surface, no two people would seem to be stranger bedfellows than the grocer's son from Whittier, California and the German refugee-turned-Harvard professor who changed the face of the world during their six years as a political team. (Kissinger was Nixon's National Security Advisor during the first term of his presidency.) As Lees paints them, however, both were in love with power to an obsessive, unhealthy degree. To his credit, Nixon does also show love for his family -- well, at least for his younger daughter, Julie.

Most of the time, though, Lees' Nixon is preoccupied with how history will remember him. Meanwhile, Kissinger -- whose only goals during this meeting are to get Nixon to resign and to make sure the President tells his successor, Gerald Ford, to keep Kissinger on board -- shamelessly lies to him and says that their foreign policy accomplishments will overshadow Nixon's wrongdoing in the long run.

One of the most entertaining sequences of Nixon's Nixon comes when Bamman and Mellor re-enact Lees' version of Nixon's meetings with Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung and Russian head honcho Leonid Brezhnev. These flashback episodes help break the occasional tedium, since the back-and-forth between Nixon and Kissinger can sometimes feel drawn out. Indeed, the lagging of pace at certain moments is the only major flaw in Jim Simpson's otherwise sterling direction.

Nixon's Nixon is a golden opportunity for two outstanding thespians to show their chops, and MCC deserves credit for not turning to major, box-office-igniting stars for this production. Instead, they've hired the best men for the job. Bamman, sporting a rather obvious wig, doesn't do a completely faithful imitation of Nixon's voice, but he otherwise has his mannerisms down pat. More importantly, he never seems to be commenting on the character, instead embodying him fully. Mellor's Kissinger is pitch-perfect right down to the voice. The actor is also fearless in embracing Lees' warts-and-more-warts depiction of a man who is still considered by many to be a national hero.

For those who are too young to remember Nixon's six years in office, the play provides a valuable history lesson, enumerating the triumphs (the opening of diplomatic relations with mainland China), the tragedies (the failure to end the Vietnam War sooner), and the more debatable aspects of his legacy (the assassination of Chilean president Salvador Allende). For those who lived through that time, it's a painful reminder of one of the darkest time in our nation's history. That we can laugh at it at all -- and we do laugh during Nixon's Nixon -- is a testament to power: the power of good theater.

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