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NEW YORK – 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, which suggests rather than imitates the famous intonations. Finally, the psychological shadings are sketched in, conveying the prickliness of a man with a chronic inferiority complex. Kathryn Erbe applies similar gradations to shaping Pat Nixon, guiding her from a chirpy Donna Reed-style caricature to a vulnerable woman whose backbone and dignity are 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 such films as the breezy 1996 adaptation of 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 during his run for Vice President – 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 succession of mostly quick scenes. Trapped inside the play is a tender portrait of devotion, compromise and broken trust within a loving marriage. Wrapped around that core is a facile attempt to trace the roots of today’s super PACs, slur campaigns and voter manipulation, with a knowing contemporary wink and the occasional witty zinger. But Checkers lacks a sufficiently lucid or consistent point of view to create dramatic momentum.
The framing action takes place in New York in 1966, as Nixon weighs an overture from campaign strategist Murray Chotiner (Lewis J. Stadlen, excellent) to enter the presidential race. That bid represents the former VP’s last chance to emerge from premature obscurity and carve out a legacy. But Pat’s bristling distaste for political life is a significant obstacle. Her aversion has been bred by the punishing experience of their time in the spotlight, marked by public humiliation, insidious attacks and party betrayals.
That history constitutes the body of the play, which chronicles the Nixons’ bumpy time on the 1952 campaign trail, when Dick was on the Republican presidential ticket as running mate to Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Ottavino). Given that it was imperative to the GOP that Ike’s reputation remain spotless, Nixon was enlisted as the official mudslinger.
“For a long time, the GOP was the Gentleman’s Party and we never played rough,” says Nixon in a reflection clearly intended to provide a glaring contrast to today’s climate. “There was something in that old WASP establishment that said it was more important to fight fair than to win. Which is why we didn’t win for 20 years… Nixon is the one who stopped playing like that. Nixon’s the one who said what’s the point of fighting if not to win?”
The tendency to speak of himself in the third person is one of many signs of self-aggrandizement in McGrath’s take on Nixon. LaPaglia explores the inherent contradictions in a man driven to trumpet his achievements while at the same time being eaten away by feelings of paranoia, class resentment and martyrdom. He never appears to forget that he and Pat both come from humble roots. More to the point, he seems certain that his high-born Republican cronies never forget it either.
McGrath traces the events that led to the “Checkers” speech, starting with allegations concerning a secret fund for campaign expenses. Cold-shouldered by Eisenhower for several agonizing days in an attempt to force him to quit, Nixon was directed by the presidential candidate’s flunkies, Herbert Brownell (Robert Stanton) and Sherman Adams (Kevin O’Rourke), to buy his own network time and offer his resignation. But Nixon outfoxed them. He won the American public’s sympathies by opening up his personal finances to detailed scrutiny and citing the family cocker spaniel as the only significant political gift he had ever received.
The irony that the longest knives coming after Nixon during this episode were those wielded by Republicans is one of McGrath’s chief points as he chronicles the dawn of a more Machiavellian age in American politics. This allows for some poignancy in his exploration of a public figure not often viewed sympathetically in dramatic treatments.
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 is hardly 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.
Given that we know Nixon went on to be elected president in 1969, and that the landmark 1952 speech granted him momentary redemption in the eyes of America, the only real intrigue here is how the events played out in the private sphere of his marriage to Pat.
With Stadlen’s gutter-mouthed tactician Murray urging Dick to brush aside his conflicts and get on board, that story is reasonably absorbing. It’s even quite moving as Pat reluctantly surrenders the rights of her family to live a life unstained by politics, despite her husband’s earlier promises. And it’s in Erbe’s portrait of the crushed hopes of a guileless woman that the play comes closest to acquiring some dimensionality. But as a multi-character drama that aims for contemporary resonance, Checkers comes up short.
Venue: Vineyard Theatre, New York (runs through Dec. 2)
Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Kathryn Erbe, Lewis J. Stadlen, Robert Stanton, Kevin O’Rourke, Joel Marsh Garland, John Ottavino, Kelly Coffield Park, Mark Shanahan
Director: Douglas McGrath
Playwright: Terry Kinney
Set designer: Neil Patel
Costume designer: Sarah J. Holden
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Music and sound designers: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Projection designer: Darrel Maloney
Presented by Vineyard Theatre
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