by Shelley A. Sackett
Like many baby boomers, I called in sick on August 8, 1974. My friends and I gathered in a sweltering unconditioned apartment outside steamy Philadelphia in front of a small black and white television. Arranged on a mattress on the floor, beverage and accoutrements in hand, we waited for the fulfillment of our hopes, the culmination of our dreams come true. The gongs sounded on from the FM radio softly playing in the background. At last, soon-to-be ex-President Nixon appeared strolling towards the helicopter that would whisk him off into political oblivion. An entire generation breathed a collective sigh of relief.
What we didn’t know was the historical backstory of what happened the night before.
Late on August 7, 1974, the night before he resigned, President Richard Nixon summoned Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to join him in his favorite retreat, the cozy Lincoln Sitting Room. Republican senators informed him earlier that day that he would not survive an impeachment vote and Federal Judge John J. Sirica ordered him to turn over hundreds of hours of incriminating secretly taped recordings made in the White House.
Inspired by this historically factual meeting, “Nixon’s Nixon”, at the New Rep Theatre through October 6, tells Playwright Russell Lees’ version of what happened that storied evening in his intermission-less 90-minute play. Kissinger assumes Nixon is prepared to resign. He knows the inescapable political noose of impeachment and conviction is his boss’s only other option. But Kissinger assumes wrong. Instead, he walks in on an invigorated Nixon, intoxicated by brandy and denial, wildly dancing around to deafening classical music. “Americans like fighters. Underdogs. The scrappier the better,” the president croons, waving his brandy glass like a conductor’s baton. “That’s me now. I’m the underdog. Now I’m the guy to root for.” He insists his adoring public will someday embrace him as a hero, remembering his major successes (China, Russia) and forgetting his minor transgressions (Vietnam, Watergate).
Kissinger’s poker face melts and his body stiffens as he braces himself for what he realizes will be a bumpy ride. But the Nobel Peace Prize-winning diplomat also knows his fate hinges on successfully convincing the president to accept the inevitable and resign. Otherwise, Kissinger’s pursuit of his own geopolitical goals and quest for historical glory are in limbo at best and over at worst. He is not prepared to walk the impeachment plank to political oblivion. He will do whatever it takes to extricate himself from this sinking ship and, like a parasitic barnacle, attach himself to whatever will keep his political ambitions and projects afloat.
He lets Nixon lead him on a surreal journey reliving the top ten list of their association’s triumphs. The two world leaders play out the fantasy—Kissinger awkwardly pretends to be Chairman Mao and Brezhnev as a manic Nixon reenacts his moments of glory. It is an hour into the play before the word “resign” is even uttered aloud. Both care most about their legacy and how history will judge them. But even this prolonged gauzy delusion can’t hide the men’s distinct agendas.
Kissinger, impatient and manipulative, interrupts Nixon’s rants to coax him to put in a good word for him with Vice President Jerry Ford. “I can’t continue my work until you get out of the way,” he finally states. Nixon, who really just wants to be loved, isn’t giving in without a fight. He even beseeches God, whom he addresses on bent knees. “I feel like I should be asking forgiveness but I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong,” he bemoans. “They gave me so much power. Why are they surprised I used it?” He relishes unnerving Kissinger by showing him a transcript from one of the tapes that would implicate Kissinger in criminal activity if the tape were to be made public, which would only happen if Nixon didn’t resign. Even from his political death bed, Tricky Dick still has a few aces up his sleeve and he delights in tormenting his opponent by rubbing his nose in them.
As Nixon, Jeremiah Kissel is exhilarating and exhausting. He is all twitches and staccato gestures, one minute an overgrown child and the next a raving, paranoid fighter. Joel Colodner plays Kissinger as cool and conniving, an immigrant who fled Nazi Germany and ended up arguably more powerful than the president. A less compatible couple is hard to imagine.
And yet, the two have more in common than appears at first blush. Both worship at the altar of their legacies. Both are obsessed with how history will judge them. And both will stoop to anything to maintain the command they feel is rightfully theirs. They play off each other seamlessly, richly dancing a pas-de-deux that makes obvious their years as political bedfellows.
“It’s the great American story. Requited ambition,” Kissinger tells Nixon. “The son of a grocer and an immigrant boy rise to the highest levels of power and change the world.”
‘Nixon’s Nixon –Written by Russell Lees; Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue; Scenic Design by Afsoon Pajoufar; Costume Design by Zoe Sundra; Lighting Design by Aja Jackson; Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill, Stage Manager- Heather Radovich. Presented by New Repertory Theatre, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, through October 6. For tickets and information, go to: http://www.newrep.org/