If we must have a play about Richard and Pat Nixon, then Douglas McGrath makes a damned good job of it in “Checkers.” TV pros Anthony LaPaglia (“Without a Trace”) and Kathryn Erbe (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”) are tailor-made for their roles in this biodrama, which views Nixon’s famous speech as the defining moment of his marriage and the turning point of his career. More character study than political play, “Checkers” lacks heft, but it builds a solid case for Nixon as a natural-born political animal who paid for the Faustian bargain he struck to achieve his ambitions.
LaPaglia does it right. When the play opens — in 1966, as the GOP is narrowing its hunt for a promising presidential candidate to run in 1968 — Nixon’s life seems pretty normal. He’s left California, having been defeated in his last two elections, including the stake-in-the-heart loss to JFK in 1960. He’s living quietly in New York with Pat (Erbe) and the girls, retired from politics but still a force in the party.
And that’s the way that LaPaglia plays him — a little bored but perfectly normal. Pleased to see his wife and two young daughters happily adjusted to life in New York. So mellow, he’s seriously considering Pat’s request for a weekend home in the country because he wants her to have a garden again — and because “all the big shots do it.”
And there it is — that hint of paranoia, that revealing show of wounded feelings at being slighted, even mocked. LaPaglia arrives at that state of paranoia by stealth. A few suspicious looks from under a beetled brow. The concave chest, the back hunched as if in anticipation of a blow.
When Pat mentions sharing the elevator with the Rockefellers and feeling impressed to be living in the same building with social royalty, Nixon quickly cuts back: “Several floors below them, naturally. I’m sure they took note of that.”
And when Pat goes on to say that she sensed “disapproval” of her taste in art from Mrs. Rockefeller, Nixon’s back goes up. Has his wife been dissed? He doesn’t actually come out and say so, but LaPaglia hints at it, and he’s an actor who is very good at hinting.
Nixon is protective of Pat for good reason: She’s sweet, shy, delicate and easily crushed. There’s not a hint of condescension toward this pretty, fragile creature from Erbe, who makes it clear that Pat’s wifely duty is to humanize her ambitious husband. As seen here, they’re the ideal political couple. She gives him heart; he gives her backbone.
If Pat is the good angel who civilizes her husband, Murray Chotiner, Nixon’s chief political adviser and a ruthless bastard in Lewis J. Stadlen’s flashy perf, is the bad angel who appeals to his dark side. The insecurity, the neediness, the self-loathing, the raw anger and naked ambition — these are precisely the qualities that Chotiner can work with if Nixon can be coaxed out of retirement to make a run for the presidency.
As Chotiner proceeds with his seduction, everything about him is pure calculation. By presenting himself as a foul-mouthed vulgarian and a socially despised Jew, he becomes the nonthreatening antithesis of all those rich swells and party elites Nixon hates and mistrusts.
By the end of that neat seduction scene, Nixon is referring to himself in the third person and is ready to play. “Nixon can’t afford another loss,” he says darkly. “Nixon only has one more chance.”
All this buildup — skillfully orchestrated by helmer Terry Kinney, a Steppenwolf heavyweight — leads to the TV speech that Nixon was forced to give in 1952, when rumors of financial irregularities almost cost him his hard-won position as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate. Funny thing about Ike (a genial gent, in John Ottavino’s perf): For all his detachment from the dirty business of politics, he’s shrewd enough to spot the “odd combination of ruthlessness and insecurity” driving Nixon. Eisenhower mainly associates these qualities with dictators.
Giving a tour de force performance, LaPaglia plays the speech like a piece of church music. After starting off on a lofty theme, with Nixon heroically defending his honor and that of his wife, he drops to the ground, pathetically groveling for his job. By the end of this cri de coeur, the organ is bellowing its pipes out, pulling out all the stops to declare Nixon a paranoid Commie-witchhunter and a slightly crazy guy. The kind of guy you might get for president if you don’t watch out.