Yesterday the Washington Post reviewed the revival of Russell Lees’ two-character play Nixon’s Nixon which is running at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, until June 22. (A previous post at TNN linked to an earlier Post article about this production.)
Lees, whose day job is as a designer of interactive computer games, studied writing under Nobel laureate Derek Walcott at Boston University. Nixon’s Nixon portrays the President and Dr. Henry Kissinger in the Lincoln Sitting Room of the White House on the evening of August 7, 1974, the night before the resignation speech – reminiscing about summits with Brezhnev and Mao, musing about the curious ways of statecraft and historical destiny, and needling, cajoling, insulting, and flattering each other, sometimes almost simultaneously. The play was first produced Off-Broadway in 1995 (over a decade before Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, which it structurally somewhat resembles, reached Broadway) and has since been produced across the United States. Round House Theatre previously produced Nixon’s Nixon in 1999 with Edward Gero as Nixon and Conrad Feininger as Kissinger; these actors repeat their roles in the revival.
I saw the play last Sunday, in a performance which was followed by a panel discussion featuring Gero, TNN’s own Frank Gannon, Nixon and Kissinger author Robert Dallek, and Kenneth Adelman, the distinguished former director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and Shakespeare expert. Mssrs Gannon and Adelman both noted that the play did not exactly reflect the historical record to a tee. I can assure the reader that President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger, as portrayed in Nixon’s Nixon, are not quite as distant from the actual figures as, say, Shakespeare’s Falstaff is from his historical model, Sir John Oldcastle. But the characterizations are pretty broad. For one thing, Dr. Kissinger, in the play, enters wearing a tuxedo, which would not really have been his customary dress when entering the Lincoln Sitting Room in real life. I assume the costume was chosen in reference to his iconic appearance in so many photos of the period, entering or leaving glittering social events in a tux. (Nixon, in the play, is in his customary dark suit, tie and wingtips.)
Both Gero and Feininger are very accomplished actors, and have a gift for executing 180-degree turns from farce to pathos which (as Frank Gannon noted) makes this play quite effective on stage, and gives it a life somewhat absent from the page (at least from what I gleaned from browsing through the text via books.google.com). The actors are called on to do rapid-fire impersonations of Brezhnev and Mao (surprisingly, Lees omits De Gaulle, a natural for this kind of treatment) and, indeed, each other. The results are entertaining, and so I recommend Nixon’s Nixon with this qualification: just don’t assume you’re seeing the actual events of that night.