November 17, 2012

"Checkers" Is a Monochromatic View of Nixon

Love him or hate him, Richard Nixon was rarely boring.  But, alas, he is in Checkers, the new play about the nation’s controversial 37th president that is currently playing at the Vineyard Theatre.

Nixon, of course, is no stranger to the stage. He is the subject of John Adams' 1987 opera Nixon in China, which was inspired by his triumphant diplomatic journey there; and of Frost/Nixon, the 2006 Peter Morgan play about his attempt at redemption after the Watergate scandal.

Now, Checkers focuses on two other turning points in Nixon’s life. It opens in 1966 when, having lost his bids for both the presidency and the governorship of California, he has moved to Manhattan, become a partner in a white-shoe law firm and promised his wife Pat that he'll never run for public office again.

But most of the action takes place in a long flashback to 1952 when a financial scandal threatened to get Nixon thrown out of the No. 2 spot on the Republican ticket. He famously threw himself on the mercy of the public with a televised speech in which a reference to his daughters’ dog Checkers helped saved his political career and gave this play its name.

That’s a lot of exposition and playwright Douglas McGrath isn’t much better at presenting it than the previous two paragraphs just did. An accomplished screenwriter (he co-authored “Bullets Over Broadway” with Woody Allen) McGrath hasn’t written a bad play (click here to read an interview with him). He just hasn’t written an involving one.

Checkers fails to build up any suspense about what will happen or to provide any fresh insights into Nixon. That’s a tall order, considering that we know the outcomes in both ’52 and ‘66 and that Nixon’s life has been analyzed endlessly over the last 60 years.

Still, Morgan managed to pull it off in Frost/Nixon. That was, in part, because of a brilliant performance by Frank Langella (click here to read my review).  Anthony LaPaglia is no acting slouch either but he isn’t as comfortable in Nixon's skin.  

 LaPaglia’s got the outer stuff—Nixon’s trademark hunched shoulders, shifty eyes and growly voice—but he hasn’t figure out a way to tap into the soul of this enigmatic man.  

Kathryn Erbe comes off better as Nixon’s wife Pat. There’s a poignancy to her performance as a very private woman forced into the most public kind of life that belies the nickname Plastic Pat that the real-life woman was callously given.  

Best of all—and clearly having the most fun—is the veteran scene-stealer Lewis J. Stadlen as Nixon’s old cigar-chomping and wisecracking campaign manager Murray Chotiner. The play livens up whenever Stadlen is onstage.

The rest of it falls flat.  Some of the fault for that must be borne by director Terry Kinney, whose imaginative ideas about what to do with the show seem to have ended with the decision to hire Darrel Maloney to do a series of clever video projections that play between scene changes. 

 McGrath and Kinney devote a large part of the play to recreating the Checkers speech and LaPaglia does a good job with it, even stumbling over the very same word (integrity) that Nixon did in the original.  But you can learn a lot more about the man just by watching a video of the real-life version, which you can do by clicking here.

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