THEATER REVIEW: Kissinger And Nixon On Trial

Published: October 14, 1995, Saturday
Judgment day has come for Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger.
And court is in session at the MCC Theater, formerly the Manhattan Class Company, at 120 West 28th Street in Chelsea, where Jim Simpson's intermissionless "Nixon's Nixon," by Russell Lees, provides a brilliant beginning for the company's 10th anniversary season.
Here are great themes and great men, given life in memorable performances by Garry Bamman as the disgraced President and Steve Mellor as his Secretary of State. Set in the Lincoln Sitting Room of the White House at 10 P.M. on Aug. 7, 1974, the eve of Nixon's resignation speech, "Nixon's Nixon" imagines the content of a secret meeting between the two that is said to have actually occurred.
Writhing in the coils of implacable fate, each man ponders his place in history. Self-preservation, self-interest, ego, ambition and liquor fire their struggles to maintain power. Alternately hopeful and despairing, Nixon clings to the possibility that he can avoid resigning. Mr. Kissinger, certain of the President's doom, maneuvers to stay on as Secretary of State in Gerald Ford's Administration.
Bound by a past that is shaping their future, they look back, touching on encounters with world figures like Leonid I. Brezhnev, Mao Zedung and John F. Kennedy; there are memories, too, of the 1968 Czechoslovak uprising, the war in Vietnam, the secret bombing of Cambodia, the overthrow of President Salvador Allende Gossens of Chile, the killing of students on the campus of Kent State University. And, of course, the White House tapes.
From time to time, each man takes on the role of one of the figures conjured up by restless memory. As Nixon and Mr. Kissinger, Mr. Bamman and Mr. Mellor offer no caricatures, no easy impersonations. But each skillfully evokes the man. Nor is the playwright taking easy shots. The Nixon of "Nixon's Nixon" is a rounded portrait: a powerful President, a formidable statesman, a wily politician, a foul-mouthed adversary, a wounded animal loathing himself as the instrument of his destruction and a father heart-wrenching in his acknowledgment of his betrayal of his daughter Julie, who had come to his defense.
Smoothly directed by Mr. Simpson, Mr. Lees's play flashes with humor; watching Nixon and Mr. Kissinger concoct a world crisis calculated to allow the President to bow out as a hero is a hilarious as it is hair-raising.
"Nixon's Nixon" is playing through Oct. 22. It is excellent.
March 24, 1996, Sunday


Diatribes? Homilies? It's Nixon
WHO SAID THAT THE AMERICAN passion for unseemly media rants and confessions began with Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey and the rest of the talk show enabler-hosts? I think it began about 40 years ago with the televising of the Army-McCarthy hearings and with Richard M. Nixon's Checkers speech. We spent the next quarter century watching him bring his gifts to a dazzling, monomaniacal pitch, both on television and tape: artfully crafted mea culpas, stream-of-consciousness diatribes, self-congratulation, self-flagellation, homilies, obscenities, bouts of aggression and subservience.
All of this will come flooding back to you when you enter the Westside Theater, where the MCC Theater production of "Nixon's Nixon" has moved, and find that you have entered a facsimile White House. The stage has become the Lincoln Sitting Room; the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building can be glimpsed through the windows, and a bust of the Great Emancipator sits austerely on a table. The lights dim (night must fall, and it is the night of Aug. 7, 1974) and suddenly, there he is, the figure of Richard M. Nixon, awaiting the arrival of his Secretary of State, Henry A. Kissinger, and struggling with his fate and future amid the Watergate crisis: to resign or not to resign.
It isn't accurate to say that Gerry Bamman plays or impersonates Nixon. What he does is reinhabit the man, bring him back to haunt us, complete with the pursed lips, the stalk, the arms as stiff as paper cutouts, the hunched shoulders that swallow up the neck and the voice that could swerve from guttural to rich and unctuous.
What follows, once Steve Mellor's Kissinger arrives, is a black comedy in a tainted White House: schemes and psychodramas as Nixon relives his triumphs and spits out his grievances; counter-schemes and calculations, while Kissinger tries to lure him into resigning without jeopardizing his own hopes for remaining Secretary of State under Gerald R. Ford.
This Kissinger is not the brilliant statesman -- Machiavelli plus Bismarck -- he's usually portrayed as. He's a crafty second banana trying not to slip on his own skin. If it weren't for the accented basso voice, he could pass for the young Groucho Marx, which feels unexpectedly right. There he is, all guile and selfish timing, trying to feed lines to a man who can't tell the difference between farce and tragedy.
What a smart writer Russell Lees is and how perfectly, with what glee, he captures the intensely felt, intensely banal language of the President Who Was Not a Crook -- history as "the big picture stuff" and Presidential power as "executive privilege up the wazoo." The old-fashioned provincial tone of the insults and slurs he favored -- "those European bozos" for the leaders he dislikes and "Limey snots" for the English who turned against Winston Churchill. (It's like being in a used-goods store of language.)
Then there is the sudden precision that animates his talk when he recalls his own personal shames and humiliations. He meets Kennedy the day after the 1960 election and sees him "sitting there, rich and presidential like a cut of veal"; Kennedy looks down at Nixon's shoes and: "I swear, a little sneer came across his face. A sneer." And of the public outrage over Watergate, he says, "I've been run over by a tank."
I love the way Mr. Lees uses psychodrama too. Every time Nixon wants to relive one of his triumphs -- a meeting with Mao or Brezhnev, for instance -- he restages it, usually making Kissinger play the other world leader, but occasionally taking on both parts himself. And, of course, Kissinger improvises so that his lines will steer Nixon toward resigning. It's psychodrama as psycho-political warfare. When you put it together with some of the other memories and fantasies these two men call up, the laughter turns pretty grim. "Good God, look at the body count in the Civil War!" Nixon says about Vietnam, then casts a bitter glance at the bust of Lincoln: "And he's on Mount Rushmore."
Only the end of "Nixon's Nixon" struck me as falling short. It works, but it's neat and glib rather than outrageous. Endings are the devil (ask any writer). How do you live up to what has gone before without being too schematic, and suggest there is more than could be said or done, especially with a story whose outcome we know?
Jim Simpson's directing is terrific without being at all overbearing. Here are two men in one room talking obsessively about the past, and there is a constant physical tension that makes us wonder what's going to be said or done next: their bodies gauge and play off each other just as their sentences and egos do. And the sudden theatrical effects -- Kyle Chepulis's lurid lighting changes, Mike Nolan's gusts of symphonic music -- are utterly compelling and utterly fake. Which is just the effect Nixon created. It's all strangely and hilariously cathartic.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Of Nixon and Kissinger: What Might Have Been

Published: March 13, 1996, Wednesday
There's a briefly introspective moment in Russell Lees's entertaining "Nixon's Nixon," when Richard M. Nixon (Gerry Bammon) and Henry A. Kissinger (Steve Mellor) consider how far they've come from their humble origins. It's late on the night of Aug. 7, 1974. The place is the Lincoln Sitting Room in the White House and both men have had a lot to drink. Facing impeachment, the President of the United States is being urged by his Secretary of State to bite the bullet and resign. Nixon refuses to make a decision. Kissinger is worried about his own future.
"Sometimes I stare in the mirror," Kissinger muses. "What's happening behind those eyes? I'm astonished. Mystified." There's a pause. He adds, "I like it." Nixon admits that although he doesn't often stare in the mirror now, he did on the way up. He not only stared, but also talked to himself: " 'You sly dog,' I'd say. And we'd share a secret smile. But then I fell. I fell like Satan tossed from heaven."
It's the great American story," Kissinger says benignly, as if to soothe. "Requited ambition." Which prompts Nixon to suggest that maybe one should commit suicide when one's at the top, before triumph turns to tragedy. "There's the catch," the President points out with brow furrowed. "You don't know when to kill yourself until it's too late."
This is the stuff of Mr. Lees's blissfully funny and sometimes cruel fiction, which opened last night at the Westside Theater, after its limited engagement at the MCC Theater Off Off Broadway.
"Nixon's Nixon" deserves all of the good things you have heard about it and more. It's both a serious work of the imagination and a fully realized political satire of the sort that the American theater seldom sees. It may also be the perfect antidote to Oliver Stone's fancy and flatulent three-hour-plus movie, "Nixon," an upscale docudrama that pretends to deal in facts, a number of which may not be true.
"Nixon's Nixon" makes no such mistake. It's like a jazz riff on contemporary history. It's one playwright's speculation about what went on at a meeting that was closed to all except the two parties involved. There were no flies on the wall of the White House that night. Mr. Lees uses this occasion to create a small, vivid drama that confirms and even humanizes the participants as they are known through their public personalities. The revelations here are not of facts but of fiction that informs.
Jim Simpson has staged the intermissionless 80-minute piece with admirable simplicity and with two splendidly effective actors. As you may have read, Mr. Bamman and Mr. Mellor eschew all padding and putty that might make them look like their real-life counterparts.
At times Mr. Mellor seems to resemble Mr. Kissinger at the age of 30, long before his Washington days, but that seems accidental. The distinctive accent and voice are suggested, not imitated. Mr. Bamman doesn't resemble Mr. Nixon at all, though he has the hand gestures, the facial expressions and the walk. Best of all, both actors have the characters as written by Mr. Lees.
This Nixon is desperate, shrewd, paranoid, utterly baffled by the situation in which he finds himself. As the night of drink and talk, of accusations and reconciliationscontinues, he seems increasingly unable to finish a sentence. His mind is going too fast. No sooner does one thought come into his head than another arrives before he has fully articulated the first. His language is obscene. He also has a gift for the matchlessly inept simile. "Rugs as thick as thieves," he says of the carpeting in Mao Zedong's Imperial City.
Kissinger also disintegrates in his own fashion. He's alternately unctuous and aggressive until Nixon lets on that there are tapes that could bring the Secretary of State down, too. At which point Kissinger begins to see the value of whomping up a small international crisis to keep Nixon in office. The colleagues who initiated the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, opened China and negotiated the end of the Vietnam War are suddenly back in business.
They discuss various "Dr. Strangelove"-like possibilities until they seize on the idea of an incident along the Russian-Chinese border. Says Kissinger: "A provincial mayor gets assassinated sort of thing." They foresee how the crisis will escalate. Kissinger: "We tell both sides what's going to happen." Nixon: "We play 'em like banjos." Kissinger: "It gets tense. Who can prevent world war? Who has the power and prestige and trust of the Soviet Union and China? Who?" Nixon: "Me!"
"Nixon's Nixon" has the brio of a revue sketch constructed with a playwright's appreciation for character. The play doesn't cut deep but it cuts true. Within its short running time, it also manages to touch lightly on most of the major events so laboriously recapitulated in Mr. Stone's fractured film. In its wit and economy, "Nixon's Nixon" recalls Robert Altman's 1985 film, "Secret Honor," adapted from the one-character play about Mr. Nixon by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone. That work, too, was pure speculation.
At the time Mr. Nixon left office, who could have foreseen that he would become a figure of such fascination in fiction? Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him? Maybe Mr. Lees is right when he has his protagonist announce, "I appeal to the Richard Nixon in everybody."
Friday, 27 July, 2001, 12:21 GMT 13:21 UK

Nixon's final hours

Tension mounts as Nixon tries to squirm his way out

By BBC News Online's Norman Miller

Writers who have spun tales around what might have gone down when great men met include Tom Stoppard (Travesties) and Michael Frayn (Copenhagen). So Russell Lees is in good company with his short, sharp reflection on what Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger may have discussed on August 7, 1974, the night before Nixon resigned as US President.
It is historical fact that the two men did meet for several hours that night but I doubt their conversation matched the crazed brilliance Lees serves up.
Ensnared by the investigation into the Watergate cover-up, Richard Milhouse Nixon is as desperate to find some way out as any cornered beast.
Keith Jochim's sweating, jowly Nixon reels around the sort of manic options open to the most powerful man on earth, from nukes to coups. However, Tim Donoghue's Kissinger is not playing ball with the president's pitches, his outward containment a mask for his own desperation to salvage power from the wreckage of Nixon's fall.
In an era when MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) was the acronym the world over, Lees toys with the madness under the political gloss to brilliant effect.
Both Nixon and Kissinger are like two kids caught doing something naughty, cajoling and squabbling as they try to both get off the hook, either together or at the expense of the other. So Tricky Dicky taunts Kissinger with the spectre of Ford giving his job to Al Haig should Nixon fail to survive, while Kissinger dangles the judgement of history in front of a master desperate to be remembered as a great statesman.
Surreal comic touches run through the 90 minutes, such as the duo's repeated hammy impersonations of the likes of Mao and Brezhnev whenever the copious intake of booze sparks more misty-eyed reminiscences.
Though the laughs come thick and fast throughout, Lees is wise enough to add some darkness to the comedy in a way someone like Beckett - the master of the two-hander black comedy - would have admired. Jochim's Nixon weeps as he admits that perhaps there is more than saving one's skin, as he forces Kissinger to reel off the death toll from his past actions from South East Asia through Chile to the deaths of US anti-war protesters.
While an acquaintance with the Vietnam War era definitely adds to the enjoyment, Lee's lively but ascerbic script and superb performances by both Jochim and Donoghue make this a thought-provoking, sparkling outing.
And at just 90 minutes long, it leaves plenty of time for after-show debate.
Nixon's Nixon is playing at the Comedy Theatre, London

(source archived)

Comedy Theatre
18 July - 1 September 2001
A recent article in the New York Times claims that theatre needs to reinvent itself if it is to regain its relevance and cultural centrality. Its writer should see Nixon's Nixon. There is no way that television or cinema could do what this play does so brilliantly well: which is to take two actors and a small space, and out of them reprise a crucial moment in the history of America and the world. It does it with economy, illumination, great wit and – given the prima facie unattractiveness of the protagonists: sweating "Tricky Dicky" Nixon, liar and cheat, and the wooden flat-voiced menacing Henry Kissinger – surprising tenderness. This is theatre at its most potent, a species of magic, weaving whole worlds out of a few fine threads.
In this case the threads are a very good script by Russell Lees, and two very good actors in Keith Jochim as Nixon and Tim Donoghue as Kissinger. Lees places his characters on the tip of a needle-sharp moment of history: the night before Nixon's resignation in August 1974. It is historical fact that Kissinger visited Nixon in the Lincoln Sitting Room in the White House on that night, and stayed three hours. No one knows what happened, or what was said the tape machines were not running – so Lees has taken the opportunity to invent a distraught Nixon reminiscing about triumphs, and more than half hoping he (or he and Kissinger) can somehow, by some stroke, devise an escape from his fate. Earlier in the day a delegation of Republican senators had called on Nixon and told him that the game was up. Even so Lees has the wily lifelong politician, twisting and turning like a fox in a cage, look for the slimmest chink of light suggesting a route out – or more accurately: a route to stay in the presidency
In reviewing the foreign relations triumphs of his presidency – the rapprochement with China, the nuclear weapons treaty with Russia – Lees's Nixon has an unwilling Kissinger act out with him his encounters with Brezhnev and Mao. It is hilarious and revealing. As the two men drink, so the impersonations get more lurid – and with them the schemes to keep Nixon in the White House, including a CIA-sponsored "border incident" between China and Russia precipitating an international crisis requiring Nixon to remain in office. Kissinger's concern is not to save Nixon, but his own job as Secretary of State. Out of the clash and combination of ambition, failure, trouble, memory and defeat, Lees gives a funny and wonderfully instructive commentary on a piece of vivid contemporary history.
This is excellent theatre, excellently done, and not to be missed.
AC Grayling
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