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Dirty Tricks

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

There's a famous saying: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you." That statement could have been written with Martha Mitchell in mind. Despite unsympathetic treatment from both Washington and the press, the Watergate whistleblower played a vital role in unraveling the Richard Nixon administration; the "Mouth that Roared," as she was known, eventually proved well worth listening to.

Though Martha died in 1976, she still has a lot to say in John Jeter's play, Dirty Tricks, at the Public Theater's Anspacher Theater. To what degree she's worth listening to now, though, is harder to say. While Martha is beautifully portrayed by two-time Tony winner Judith Ivey, Jeter's attempt to get inside Martha's fractured mind results in a play that often threatens to drown in its own stream of consciousness.

That's not always easily avoidable in one-person shows, where the confluence of the past, the present, and the imaginary is a useful storytelling method. Jeter uses that technique here by setting his play on August 8, 1974, the day of Nixon's resignation, as Martha anxiously awaits the president's news conference and her upcoming 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace. Now living alone in her New York apartment, what is there to do but examine where she's been and where she might be going?

Martha's look back on her life begins with her early years in Washington with her husband John (who would eventually become Nixon's attorney general) and her daughter Marty, as well as life on the 1972 re-election trail. But while Martha's willingness to say anything and everything she thinks is ingratiating to the public (and grating to politicians), when she unintentionally discovers evidence of the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, she becomes more a threat than an annoyance.

It's at this point that Jeter's play comes closest to fulfilling its potential, and it proves more engaging as a psychologically detailed character study than a biography. (A significant portion of the play is derived from Mitchell's own words and accompanying news reports, but much remains strictly speculation.) Jeter and director Margaret Whitton beautifully capture the sense of externally imposed madness that Martha is experiencing; whether she's recalling her assault in a California hotel room or the later decline of her marriage, her anger and desperation at everyone from her husband to Nixon grippingly play as an emotional breakdown as seen from the inside.

Ivey is a major factor in making all this emotionally credible, her consummate talent and unique Everywoman glamour (highlighted by Joseph G. Aulisi's period costumes and Paul Huntley's hair and wig design) both vital to her success. Her Martha is an ordinary woman thrust into extraordinary circumstances, reacting rashly - if not always rationally - to the rapidly disintegrating world around her. Ivey convincingly navigates the fine line between Martha's minor transgressions (insulting a prominent Arkansas senator in print) and her major offenses (toward Nixon), often injecting unexpected humor and pathos into her portrayal.

As strong as her performance is, and as much as the production's other elements augment the experience (Neil Patel's cluttered apartment set is a nice physical manifestation of Martha's mind, while Stephen Strawbridge's lights and Sage Marie Carter's video design employ less tangible methods to no lesser effect), this firmly remains Jeter's show. Martha Mitchell is certainly an apt subject for a play (this is at least the second about her this year), and Jeter's juiciest exploration of her paranoia is realized in highly imaginative theatrical terms.

But more frequently than not, his treatment frustrates, too often circling around the character without homing in on her directly. Ivey can usually pick up the slack, and finds a lot of the harrowing emotional truth in Martha's story, but Jeter's roundabout writing doesn't make it easy for her, or for us. If the shortest distance between any two points is truly a straight line, clarifying the points - and the line - would be necessary steps in tidying up Dirty Tricks.

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The Public Theater
Dirty Tricks
Through November 7
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Public Theater / Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge