What made Tricky Dick tick?

Russell Lees' play aims to explain Nixon.

Richard Nixon is the only president I ever wrote a letter to. It was 1970, I was 5 years old, and after talking the matter overwith my older siblings, I decided that he needed to stop the war in Vietnam. Someone on his staff wrote back a very nice letter explaining that he was working to do just that, and included a commemorative booklet on Nixon's life, with pictures of him in his football gear and his early days in Congress I think this was why I remember feeling vaguely sad four years later while watching him resign on TV.

Nixon's Nixon

Seattle Repertory Theater, 443-2222

ends December 6

I say all this by way of admitting that I don't get a lot of the Nixon thing. Many people I've met who are 10 to 20 years older than me still seem spitting mad at the guy. Even after reading all about Watergate, the Cambodia bombings, and his early days as a convenient cat's paw to McCarthy, I just don't share their hatred. Compared to Reagan, the bane of my early days, he comes off rather well: intelligent, innovative, the man who slowed the arms race, signed effective environmental legislation, and even made serious steps towards ending the Vietnam War, which he'd been saddled with. Yes, he was a crook, but unlike the affable and telegenic Ronnie, he looked like a crook and a weasel, and in these days of image bombardment, that seems a relief.

Russell Lees' Nixon's Nixon attempts to get at the motivations of this immensely complex man by taking an imaginary look at a historical meeting. On August 7, 1974, the night before his resignation, Nixon summoned Henry Kissinger to the Lincoln Sitting Room. No one is really sure what was said or what occurred, so that encounter has long been prime territory for speculation. (And for satire: In the early days of Saturday Night Live, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi did a hilarious skit that included some of the more absurd elements of the meeting, such as Nixon's rambling conversations with the portraits of presidents, the pair singing hymns, and the president pulling Kissinger to his knees for an impromptu prayer session.)

Publicity for Nixon's Nixon might lead you to expect a wacky farce, which you don't get. You also don't get a character tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, which director Michael Butler alludes to in his program notes. Instead, what you get are two accomplished actors, David Pichette and Peter Van Norden, doing a perfectly credible job of telling you what, if you're a longstanding foe of Tricky Dick, you probably already knew and certainly believed.

So we get Pichette playing Nixon as a roleā€”not as a parody with blubbering jowls or hunted smiles, though there's the occasional Tourette's-like swearing at his enemies and feral rages. We get Van Norden as a world-weary Machiavellian bent on getting Nixon to ensure that Ford retains him as secretary of state. We get lots of talk about the tapes and about the trips to China and Russia. We even get a memory of standing on the Great Wall and feeling, just for a moment, that you're the most powerful man in the world.

What we don't get is surprise, or a true dramatic conflict. The play begins with Nixon trying to face his upcoming resignation; Kissinger spurs him on, and after a lot of angry denial the president reconciles himself to his fate. The end. Whatever went on in the White House almost 25 years ago was almost undoubtedly more dramatic than what Russell's script delivers.

During his time in office, Nixon was the best satirical target this nation ever had. His face became a Halloween mask classic. Political cartoonists, writers, and performers kicked him around like a beloved soccer ball. Russell's tame script is an interesting history lesson, but is too balanced for satire and not human enough for tragedy. Its dip into pathos late in the piece is especially lamentable; what are we to make of Nixon tallying up all the deaths from his time in office and asking himself if he is to spend the rest of his days "wading in a swimming pool of blood"?

Scott Weldin's wonderful set (a bare white sinking ship of state) and the presence of two outstanding comic actors promise an evening of merciless satire, but Russell is never willing to let his imagination go wild. The result is a mildly enjoyable review course in history and a sort of cleansing ritual for those who savored every second of the original's fall from grace. But, oh, for what might have been.

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