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Nixon’s Nixon

Another Play About Dick: We Can’t Get Enough

By Eric J. Plosky

Huntington Theatre

Through April 7

Written by Russell Lees

Directed by Charles Towers

With Tim Donoghue and Keith Jochim

What is it about Richard Nixon, anyway? Book after play after movie, almost 30 years after the big guy’s resignation, America’s still fascinated with Dick.

In Russell Lees’ Nixon’s Nixon, now playing at the Huntington Theatre, Dick is fascinated with himself, obsessed with his place in the history books. “Jefferson had some funny business too,” Nixon (Keith Jochim) says defensively to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Tim Donoghue). It’s the night of Aug. 7, 1974, and in a matter of hours, Nixon will be resigning the presidency.

Lees’ play aims to be a farce, or a satire, or something like that, with zigs toward drama and zags toward comedy. But in trying to blur the edges between them, the script sometimes succeeds all too well. Some moments do pack a punch, as when Nixon suddenly tosses his drink at Kissinger. Too often, though, when the script should be confidently pounding its message home, it merely confuses. By the time Nixon inevitably exclaims “Blow the fuckers up!” the play has gotten too far off track to be powerful.

In a way, Lees’ script invites comparison to Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.” Where Brooks lampooned the Nazis, Lees skewers Nixon -- and creates the same kind of awkward atmosphere. Just as in “The Producers,” during which the audience is confronted by singing and dancing SS soldiers and essentially has no choice but to laugh, “Nixon’s Nixon” evokes laughter during times of uncertainty, even when shock or disgust might be more appropriate. It’s disappointing that Lees retreats to the safety of laughter as often as he does.

Still, the play has been a success here and abroad -- although it’s only now playing in Boston, it opened off Broadway in 1996 and has had several runs since then. Lees does get in some crafty zingers, and the audience was very appreciative.

Keith Jochim plays Nixon as we might expect -- the craggy, jowly face, the blue suit, the Brylcreemed hair, the famous hunch. He’s entirely comfortable in the role, which perhaps isn’t surprising, given that he first played it in 1997. It is only because the real man himself is so firmly fixed in the public mind that Jochim cannot quite make the audience forget that he is, in fact, not actually Richard Nixon.

Of course, merely by accepting the role, Jochim invites comparison to other Nixons. Where Anthony Hopkins (Oliver Stone’s Nixon) was sweating and shifty-eyed, Jochim is loose and expressive -- but far more ominous than either the comic-book Dan Hedaya version (the recent comedy Dick) or the bewildered Bob Gunton version (the TV movie Elvis Meets Nixon). His is a worthy portrayal.

Tim Donoghue, in playing Kissinger, faces two formidable challenges: conquering the man’s signature accent, and overcoming the fact that Kissinger, in voice, word, and attitude, is thoroughly irritating. Donoghue, to his credit, has the accent down cold -- he’s also played Kissinger for years -- but that only makes the character more annoying. Nevertheless, Donoghue has fun with his Kissinger, who tries to push Nixon out of the way even as he angles to keep the coveted Secretary of State post under Nixon’s would-be successor, Gerald Ford. “You could write your memoirs,” Kissinger suggests. Nixon glares, and Kissinger backtracks: “... perhaps it’s a bit soon.”

Director Charles Towers, too, has been along with Jochim and Donoghue for some years, and for the most part, it shows. He handles the transitions between drama and comedy with finesse as much as he is able, saddled with Lees’ uneven script. Towers does have a surprising lapse, however. During one crucial scene he allows Nixon to stand with his back to the whole left side of the house, also blocking Kissinger.

The set decoration is superb, and the work by lighting designer Dan Kotlowitz is particularly impressive. The lighting changes abruptly and effectively several times, and one such change -- a kind of re-enactment of Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China, in which Kissinger plays Chairman Mao -- stands out.

My freshman advisor once informed me during a seminar that, “we could be having this class on the moon, were it not for Richard Nixon.” A polarizing figure, a man of irreconcilable contradictions who is in the news even now (new White House tapes were recently released), Nixon is worth exploring in far more detail than in Russell Lees’ play.