"Dirty Tricks" gives some indication of just how lively it might be to have a loose cannon eager to speak her mind in the White House. While Judith Ivey's performance lends weight to the solo show, playwright John Jeter's flimsy assemblage of monologues fails to do justice to the political firebrand who helped destabilize the Nixon administration.

Cause of considerable anxiety this year within the Democrats’ presidential campaign, Teresa Heinz Kerry’s candor with the media has often earned her comparison to Martha Mitchell, though the current Dem candidate’s consort looks positively demure next to the Mouth of the South. “Dirty Tricks” gives some indication of just how lively it might be to have a loose cannon eager to speak her mind in the White House, rather than a smiling subordinate with a gag order. But while Judith Ivey’s feisty performance lends weight to the solo show, first-time playwright John Jeter’s flimsy assemblage of monologues fails to do justice to the political firebrand who helped destabilize the Nixon administration.

Presented earlier this year at the Public’s New Work Now! series, “Dirty Tricks” is the latest addition to an election-year theater season jammed with political works. His play may be set 30 years ago on the eve of President Nixon’s resignation, but Jeter etches the connection to the current political landscape with the subtlety of fingernails on a blackboard.

“We can’t play the role of blind patriot anymore,” says Mitchell in the play’s closing speech, suggesting America cannot afford to turn its cheek to the “goings-on” at the White House. “It is your duty to question authority, as sovereign as it may be. … Americans have been far too trusting of our government.” Duh!

Written during the Clinton administration, the play is as pertinent to the impeachment issues of that presidency as it is to the secrecy that cloaks George W. Bush’s White House. It also opens a potentially rich debate about the role of political wives — all too rarely opinionated, encouraged instead to be innocuous philanthropists and blandly supportive mouthpieces. (While fairly suspicious of the entire species, Mitchell reserves special contempt here for “that pickle-puss” Pat Nixon.)

There’s also much to be drawn from the anthropological study of that appallingly fascinating creature, the media whore. Mitchell is both outraged by and insatiably hungry for everything the press has to say about her, delighting in the moniker “Moutha.”

But despite the presence of the always watchable Ivey, and Mitchell’s colorfully bitchy Southern vernacular, the poorly structured play amounts to little more than an amusing yet slight caricature, a vignette from U.S. political history that belabors its contemporary relevance but has only the faintest resonance.

Set in the bedroom of Mitchell’s New York apartment after the events of Watergate and the betrayal of her husband, John — former attorney general and later Nixon’s re-election campaign manager — the play opens in August 1974. Mitchell is preparing to give a “60 Minutes” interview, which has been moved up after news emerges that Nixon is about to step down from office.

Aided by Sage Marie Carter’s video projections, director Margaret Whitton underlines how the news saturates almost every waking hour of Mitchell’s life, and even her sleep, in a striking opening image in which TV static is beamed over Martha, feeding her nightmares.

Ambling backwards through a loosely juggled chronology, Jeter recaps Mitchell’s greatest hits — her hotline calls to then-White House correspondent Helen Thomas; her urging of parents to send their boys to Canada rather than Vietnam; her 2 a.m. bourbon-soaked call to an Arkansas newspaper to demand the crucifixion of Sen. Fulbright; her assertion that racial integration could have happened without protest; her disparaging views on the Supreme Court.

The play’s cohesiveness, such as it is, comes from its challenge to the audience to discover if flamboyant, dipsomaniacal Martha is crazy, paranoid, persecuted or prescient — a vigilant observer of a corrupt political regime or a “dumb-ass hillbilly cracker,” as one of her correspondents puts it.

“Let it be known that any irregularities in my mental stability have been brought upon me by outside forces … namely, King Richard Milhous Nixon,” Mitchell declares early on. “And some inside forces as well, I suppose: my husband, that gutless, despicable crook, John Newton Mitchell.”

Much of the uncertainty over Mitchell’s state of mind is pinned to her claim — later vindicated — that as the Watergate scandal erupted, she was manhandled, drugged and imprisoned in a California hotel room without newspapers in an effort to silence her. Later, she was simply kept out of sight in New York, “a woman who has become a political prisoner in her own country,” in Mitchell’s words.

There’s a dynamite character here and a potent cautionary tale of sinister political machinations. While Jeter might not be the playwright to document them, Ivey is certainly the actress to flesh out larger-than-life meddlesome Martha.

Shuffling around the shabby apartment in thrown-together ’70s matron ensembles and speaking of herself in the self-aggrandizing third person, Ivey makes an often hilarious meal of Mitchell’s forked-tongue pronouncements. She moves beyond what could have been merely a campy impersonation into pathos as the fiery spotlight-seeker becomes a progressively unhinged victim, railing at her husband through a locked door.

However, if Jeter’s aim is to construct a heroic political martyr, not to mention prophetess — “the Cassandra of our time” — out of Mitchell, his piecemeal play falls short.

Dirty Tricks

Public Theater/Anspacher; 275 seats; $50 top

Production

A Public Theater presentation of a play in one act by John Jeter. Directed by Margaret Whitton.

Creative

Sets, Neil Patel; costumes, Joseph G. Aulisi; lighting, Stephen Strawbridge; sound, Fitz Patton; video, Sage Marie Carter; production stage manager, Buzz Cohen. Reviewed Oct. 15, 2004. Opened Oct. 20. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Cast

Martha Mitchell - Judith Ivey
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