Back in 1983, the always politically provocative Donald Freed created a searing portrait of Richard Nixon with his prize-winning legiter “Secret Honor,” later a Robert Altman pic, starring Philip Baker Hall. He should have quit while he was ahead. This sprawling, tedious sojourn through the 20th century as hallucinated by an addled Nixon (Al Rossi) sets out to confront the truth behind how his beloved 19th century ideals of living the “American Dream” got polluted by the forces of evil and turned post-World War II life into the “American Nightmare.” Neither a talented ensemble nor Maria Gobetti’s insightful staging can make viable this self-indulgent diatribe. The production offers no insight into the inner workings of the mind of our 37th president or even a clear personal point of view. The production also commits the greater sin of making two of the most identifiable figures of post-war U.S. history, Nixon and John F. Kennedy, appear to be myopic, slogan-spouting boors.
Though Nixon died in 1994, the playwright sets the work at the New Jersey shore on July 4, 2000, imagining a 90-year-old “tricky Dickie” gasping out the last few minutes of his life as his mind soars over the past century. Along the way, his mental odyssey takes him on repeated visits to quintessential Americana — a Fourth of July Chautauqua gathering in 1900.
As Nixon attempts to exorcise the guilt and frustration of his life and times, he also manages to eavesdrop on the dynamic duo of J. Edgar Hoover (Travis Michael Holder) and his lifelong companion, Tolson (Cheyenne Wilbur), observe Marilyn Monroe (Diana Costa) and indulge in a bit of conscience-soothing with a pair of empathetic ghetto dwellers (Tai Bennett, Aixa Clemente).
The main thrust of the work, however, is a dialogue/
confrontation between Nixon and still-alive 80-year-old JFK, portrayed by Emmy Award winner David Clennon (“thirtysomething,” “Once and Again”).
As the aggressively jovial wheelchair-bound Kennedy is confronted by his pugnacious but emotionally repressed former presidential opponent, they indulge in a monotonous volley of charges and denials, observations and ridicules, all signifying nothing. Nixon is striving to place blame, to find the specific villains who ruined his life and “killed the country”; the imperious Kennedy places all blame on the inherent fallibility of mankind. So what?
It is a credit to the well-layered portrayals of Rossi and Clennon that these surreal Nixon/Kennedy debates are at least listenable if not viable. The production also features a hauntingly fragile portrayal of Monroe by Costa, as well as an entertaining, vaudevillesque pairing of Holder’s Hoover and Wilbur’s Tolson. Marco Palaez is quite effective as Nixon’s long-suffering government-appointed Latino caretaker, Roberto.
The production also features pleasant-sounding if inconsequential music featuring turn-of-the-19th-century ditties, performed by onstage keyboardist David Morisaki. The set and lighting of Tom Ormeny services the action well, as does the costumes of Dawn DeWitt.