The no-neck, round-shouldered posture and the bulldog expression are the first things that register about Anthony LaPaglia as Richard Nixon. Next is the voice, suggesting rather than imitating the famous intonations, and finally, the psychological shadings are sketched in. Kathryn Erbe applies similar gradations to shaping Pat Nixon, guiding her from a chirpy Donna Reed-like caricature to a vulnerable woman whose dignity is offset by a deep well of melancholy. Both actors deserve a less superficial play than Douglas McGrath's Checkers.
An Oscar-nominated screenwriter for Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway and writer-director of films like 1996's Emma, with Gwyneth Paltrow, McGrath might have been expected to bring humor to this political vignette. The play pinpoints Nixon's historic 1952 network television speech -- in which he responded to accusations of financial impropriety -- as the specific moment when American politics became inescapably personal. But Checkers sits uneasily between glib sitcom and earnest character study.
That tonal uncertainty is not helped in Terry Kinney's production by the cartoonish line drawing projections that punctuate the scenes. Trapped inside the play is a tender portrait of devotion, compromise and broken trust within a loving marriage. But wrapped around that core is a facile attempt to trace the roots of today's super PACs, slur campaigns and voter manipulation. Checkers lacks a sufficiently lucid or consistent point of view to create dramatic momentum.
As played by LaPaglia, the man under the microscope certainly invites greater compassion than he did in, say, Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon. But that more textured drama also brought sharper teeth to its examination of yesterday's political disgrace through today's spectrum. McGrath hardly is the first to identify Nixon as a pioneer among politicians in exploiting the power of television to sway public opinion. Beyond that, there's little in the way of fresh insight here.
Venue: Vineyard Theatre, New York (through Dec. 2)
Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Kathryn Erbe, Lewis J. Stadlen, Robert Stanton