might have said to each other if each had had an impish little playwright on their shoulder like Jiminy Cricket, coaching them to reveal more than was wise.
We are in the Lincoln Sitting Room, where the Secretary of State has been summoned, not in his official capacity as advisor in realpolitik but as temporary sidekick for a boss whose actual friends were on the order of Florida businessman and hanger-on Bebe Rebozo. In this account, the dour Kissinger frequently manages to be a comical sidekick, however unintentionally, to our amused schadenfreude. Liquor lubricates the conversation: by the end of these intermissionless 90 minutes, partially finished glasses of whiskey, vodka, and brandy litter the set.
With assurance and wit, Jim O’Brien and Christopher Byrnes play the tormented president and the Machiavellian lieutenant, respectively. They both capture the characters of these devious men, so convincingly that we quickly forget their limited physical similarities to their targets. Burns doesn’t reproduce Kissinger’s German accent, as O’Brien doesn’t try for Nixon’s vocal mannerisms. Such attempts might have worked but would have risked outright parody, which this play certainly is not. Playwright Lees has bigger fish to fry than facile, entertaining ridicule. He wants to shine some light into the inner workings of their dark clockwork.
Much to the delight of the opening night audience, the serious content didn’t get in the way of a very funny show. First of all, there is the continuous tension of a Kissinger who is trying to get through to Nixon the importance to the country that he resign. Byrnes plays that as straight as a dagger thrust. But another motif and motive emerges: Kissinger expresses concern — for the sake of the nation, of course — that when Vice President Ford is promoted, he will replace him as Secretary of State. Nixon playfully angles this fear like Kissinger’s a trout on a hook.
The President is convinced that “Americans love fighters,” as he grabs at straws for ways to stay afloat. He is concerned about his place in history, so Kissinger comforts him about the unfairness of impeachment by saying, “Historians will look back bewildered,” as we chortle. Glancing at a Lincoln portrait, Nixon says, “Look at the body count in the Civil War. And he got on Mount Rushmore.”
But the playwright’s cleverest stroke is to have Nixon recruit a reluctant Kissinger to re-create with him conversations with various world leaders, letting these scenes blossom into psychodramas. Chairman Mao, Soviet Party Secretary Brezhnev, John F. Kennedy, inventing Chinese, giving a bearhug, giving political advice. The opportunities let the two get beyond their relationship as megalomaniac and minion, let them speak their minds. Eventually, quite drunk, they antically fantasize a scenario of world domination and nuclear holocaust, uproariously entertained by the vision of power and domination. Inevitably, Kissinger gathers the momentum, if not courage, to tell his boss what he really thinks of him and there is an explosive confrontation.
Through all of this, a portrait of Lincoln gazes down, and you can almost detect his brow gradually furrowing.
This is an alternate universe version of what might have happened on that crucial evening. In actuality, Kennedy didn’t have to talk Nixon into not contesting the election that Mayor Daley stole for him in Chicago; Nixon refused on his own. What really happened that evening was that Nixon had an uncomfortable Kissinger kneel and pray with him. A docudrama depicting their factual conversation might be realistic but would be far less real.
Nixon’s Nixon is to Richard Nixon what Dante’s Inferno was to Satan, though less sympathetic. This Gamm production makes us wince recollecting a national nightmare, but it also keeps us laughing through a hell of a good time.
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