Through the Looking Glass in “Nixon’s Nixon” at New Rep

by Shelley A. Sackett

Nixon

Jeremiah Kissel (right as Nixon) and Joel Colodner (as Kissinger) in ‘Nixon’s Nixon’ at the New Rep. ( Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

 

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/

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Erasing gender and race barriers puts a new face on ‘1766’

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Bobbie Steinbach (as Benjamin Franklin) and Benjamin Evett (as John Adams). [All photos by Andy Brilliant/Brilliant Photography]

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

Digging deep into the history of the United States reveals a largely unrecognized fact: Jews played a role in the events that launched the American Revolution. Like their fellow early settlers, they were divided in their loyalties, but there is no denying they had skin in the game.

The most famous revolutionary Jew was Polish-born Haym Salomon, a successful foreign securities dealer who helped finance the American cause. Francis Salvador was the first Jew elected to public office in the colonies. He was also the first Jew killed in the American Revolutionary War, fighting in 1776 on the South Carolina frontier. Abigail Minis was a Savannah, Ga., businesswoman and landowner who helped supply provisions for the revolutionary forces.

 

Don’t hold your breath, however, waiting for these unsung Jewish patriots to appear in The New Rep Theatre’s production of the 1969 Broadway hit, “1776.” The Tony-award-winning musical now onstage in Watertown focuses exclusively on the tumultuous political machinations that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4. Our Jewish revolutionaries are not even a footnote.

 

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The cast of 1776

 

Nonetheless, co-directors Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards (the same team that breathed new life into the thread-worn “Fiddler on the Roof”) manage to shake things up by launching the play into the 21st century and casting it as gender and race neutral. Women play men, men play women, and the racial diversity on stage rivals that of “Hamilton.”

The strategy is, for the most part, clever and effective. The always-outstanding Bobbie Steinbach is dazzling as Ben Franklin. She steals every scene she is in (which is most of them) with her impeccable timing and gestures. It also doesn’t hurt that her character’s lines are the script’s best crafted.

The three-hour show takes place during a long, steamy Philadelphia summer. The Second Continental Congress, an unruly, exhausted and petulant group of men representing the original 13 colonies, meets day after day in a stifling room ‒ the windows can’t be opened or the chamber would fill with flies. Front and center on their agenda is deciding whether to declare national independence and unite formally in rebellion against British rule or remain separate sovereign colonies.

John Adams of Massachusetts is desperate to persuade this ill-tempered and motley crew that time is running out. If Congress doesn’t act now as a united front to throw off Great Britain’s tyranny, he fears General George Washington’s ragtag and outnumbered army will suffer crushing and lethal defeat.

The stumbling block is that Adams (in a spot on performance by Benjamin Evett) is, even by his own admission, obnoxious and disliked. Few take him or his ideas seriously. As the days pass, the room temperature and tempers flare, threatening to derail Adams’ dream. “It’s a revolution. We’re going to have to offend someone!” he bellows as yet another delegate proposes a self-serving amendment.

The script, based on the book by Peter Stone, is at times a starchy history lesson, unwavering in its emphasis on facts and chronology. The lackluster score and competent but uninspired choreography and lighting do not lighten the load. Although the audience leaves chock-full of knowledge, the lingering aftertaste is of a snack chosen for nutritional value rather than flavor.

White men comprised the real Second Congress. In this modern version, half the delegates are women, dressed as ‒ and playing the roles of ‒ men. Although initially distracting, the novelty soon wears off and everyone becomes a co-equal delegate. Suddenly, what really matters are the words they speak, not how they look or sound.

 

The directors succeed in creating a truly representative body, one that is color blind and gender neutral, united by the simple commonality of humanness. Basking in that possibility, even if it is only make believe, is well worth the price of admission.

 

Through Dec. 30 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Tickets are $22 (student) to $72. Visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.

 

 

Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass” Launches New Rep Theatre’s 2015-2016 Season

L-R: Anne Gottlieb and Jeremiah Kissel

All photos by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

New Rep Theatre’s Artistic Director, Jim Petosa, chose Arthur Miller’s infrequently produced “Broken Glass” to open the 2015-2016 season. “The resounding authenticity of playwright Arthur Miller’s voice has left an indelible legacy on the American stage,” Petosa said. “We are proud to bring this Boston are premiere to our stage during the nationwide celebration of his 100th birthday,”

“Identity” is the theme of this year’s season, and “Broken Glass” certainly fits the bill.

Written in 1994,  Miller wrote this play 40-50 years after he had penned his best known and greatest plays (the American classics “All My Sons,” “Death of a Salesman,” “An Enemy of the People,” “The Crucible” and “A View from the Bridge”). During these later years, Miller began exploring his own Jewishness and what it means to be a Jew. His search resounds loud and clear in “Broken Glass.”

The play takes place in Brooklyn in 1938, the day after Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass”), one of the events in the run-up to World War II, in which windows in Jewish stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed. The title may also refer to the traditional breaking of a glass at Jewish weddings.

Sylvia Gellburg (played with clarity and wit by Anne Gottlieb) is obsessed with the plight of her fellow Jews in Europe and distraught by the fact that those around her can’t see the writing on the wall. She pores over the newspaper, returning again and again to the humiliation of a photo of two elderly bearded Jews forced to scour the sidewalk with toothbrushes. She fears that such brutality will somehow reach Brooklyn.

Her feelings of helplessness so overwhelm her that she suffers the actual physical helplessness of paralysis. “Somebody has to do something, or they will murder us all,” she wails.

Her gloomy, hot-blooded husband, mortgage banker Phillip (played with staccato nervous energy by the stellar and popular Jeremiah Kissel) insists she see their physician and friend, Harry Hyman (Benjamin Evett). After running a series of tests and referring Sylvia to a specialist, he concludes that Sylvia’s ailment appears to be psychosomatic. He likens her condition to soldiers who are so frightened they suffer shell shock.

L-R: Benjamin Evett and Eve Passeltiner

L-R: Benjamin Evett and Eve Passeltiner

Unlike Sylvia, Phillip is not at peace with his identity. He spends as much time trying to assimilate and shed his Jewish identity as he does bristling at imagined anti-Semitic remarks, caught in that no man’s land of identifying as a Jew and wanting to be anything else. Nonetheless, he isn’t so sure that Sylvia’s reaction to the horrors of Germany isn’t spot-on.

“What if Sylvia is the only one who is awake and her reaction makes sense and if the rest of us were aware of what she is, we’d be paralyzed too?” he asks Dr. Hyman. The doctor, who is Jewish but married to the bubbly non-Jewish Margaret (Eve Passeltiner), is convinced that all the political turmoil will pass. In his estimation, Sylvia’s problem boils down to the fact that she is desperate to be loved.

Against this backdrop of unhappiness, fear and repression, the Gellburg’s marital disintegration soon takes center stage as Sylvia and Phillip verbally spar with the intimate accuracy of two people well versed in each other’s Achilles’ heels. Sylvia, who reluctantly gave up her career for motherhood and Manhattan, resents and regrets ever leaving Brooklyn. “I can’t seem to find myself in my life,” she says. Phillip echoes her disappointment: “I always thought I would have time to get to the bottom of me,” he says. These are two strangers in the strange land of their marriage.

While the cast is superb and the set inventive and effective, the play’s strident tone and length (two-and-a-half hours) eventually wears down even the most ardent theatergoer. “Broken Glass” is a tough slog. Unlike Willy Loman and the characters in Miller’s deservedly more famous plays, these characters are two-dimensional and that two-dimensionality keeps us at arm’s length, sadly making it impossible for us to feel the compassion they so crave.

Through September 27 at the Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Tickets are $30-$65. Visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.