Ten years ago, MCC Theater had an Obie-winning hit with “Nixon’s Nixon,” Russell Lees’ funny, angry riff on a real-life meeting between Kissinger and the disgraced president the night before the latter resigned. Little has changed for this remount, which reunites director and both actors, but there’s enough verve on display to justify the resurrection.
The perfs give the greatest pleasure. Gerry Bamman (Nixon) and Steve Mellor (Kissinger) waltz around the stage, enhancing their individual work by playing so richly off one another. One man says something, and the other responds with a small detail — an arched eyebrow, a shrug — that conveys years of shared history between longtime political colleagues. Thesps this relaxed bring likable humanity to characters who could easily be turned into caricatures, and they also tease out the tonal shifts in Lees’ subtle writing.
The play’s great concern, on the eve of a downfall, is legacy: Both men are obsessed with how history will remember them, and the production’s early dynamic clarifies their opposing approach to the same problem. Kissinger is stiff with anxiety that he will be booted along with the president and therefore never be able to complete his political projects. Mellor makes him an unsubtle manipulator, trying too hard to sound casual while digging for clues about Nixon’s resignation plans. This Kissinger doesn’t care for politeness — he’s guarding the memory of his great works.
In direct opposition, Nixon just wants to be loved. Lees and Bamman create a man whose crumbling ego has made him loopy with denial. Dancing around to classical music, waving a drink in the air, he insists his public will support him and that he will someday be embraced as a hero. What’s a little lying compared to improved relations with China? What’s Vietnam next to the Checkers speech?
At first, these contrasting objectives make for charming comedy, especially as Kissinger shames himself to get the information he wants. He pretends to be Leonid Brezhnev and Chairman Mao in little playlets that let the president relive the glory days, and it’s almost farce watching Mellor’s awkwardness next to Bamman’s loose-limbed mania, especially since Brian H. Kim fills the windows of the White House set with cheeky projections of the Kremlin or Beijing.
That’s why the explosions are so surprising. Lees carefully times rage and vulnerability to expose the depth beneath these silly games. When Kissinger loses his patience, he also shows his weakness, and when Nixon stops clowning, he reveals how much he actually understands. In a blink, we’re shown the furious power struggle beneath the whimsy.
“Nixon’s Nixon” becomes more than an amusement as genuine motives start replacing pretense. Impressively, Lees transforms the characters’ role-play into an evocation of their absolute dependence on each other to avoid shame. A climactic game even evolves into a hideous plot to manipulate the world into loving Nixon again, and the thesps use exquisite precision to show each man slowly deciding to believe the fantasy.
No delusion, however, can change how this story ends, and the president’s resignation looms over the production. But Lees and the creatives enhance dry historical facts with the fear and failings that so often turn politics into drama.