Let me say right up front that I don't find Richard Nixon funny yet. Henry Kissinger was always funny. But what they did was not funny. And as more of the Nixon tapes get released, we are learning that other things these men only thought about doing, like using nuclear bombs in Vietnam, were even less funny.
In Nixon's Nixon playwright Russell Lees imagines what might have transpired between Nixon and Kissinger on August 7, 1974, when they met at the White House on the eve of Nixon's resignation. There are no tapes of this meeting. About all we know is that Nixon asked Kissinger to kneel with him in prayer. Political satire starts with a shard of truth and then must be able to exaggerate beyond the realm of all possibility. If someone told me everything I heard last night was the word-for-word truth, I'd almost believe it. Given what's happened politically since 1974 and how fast we now get all the sordid details, it's difficult to conceive of something that could take this over the top.
Lees starts by assuming that Nixon hasn't made up his mind about resigning. He then invents a plausible reason why each wants the meeting: Kissinger to lobby for Gerald Ford keeping him on as Secretary of State, Nixon to enlist Kissinger's help to ensure his place in history. Lees then throws in a shaky device that becomes increasingly effective as it pays off later on. Nixon insists that Kissinger join him in role-playing encounters with Leonid Brezhnev, Chairman Mao and Golda Meir, among others. When Lees employs this during Nixon's prayer, it is brilliant. Like I said, Kissinger is funny.
Keith Jochim and Tim Donoghue have perfected their portrayals of Nixon and Kissinger, also under the direction of Charles Towers, at the Old Globe Theatre, the 1999 Edinburgh Festival and London's West End prior to this Boston mounting. Neither one is a Madame Tussaud look-alike, but they offer an effective approximation, much as a drawing by a skilled political cartoonist would.
An awful lot of fuel gets thrown on the dramatic fire because of the quantity of alcohol the two men consume. While it's an easy way to heat things up between two volatile characters, I question whether Kissinger would have matched Nixon, drink for drink, given the mission of his visit.
The physical production is somewhat overblown with elaborate lighting and scenic effects. As with the acting, it's the little details that convince. What a delight to discover about two thirds of the way into the play, that the out-of-place chair in the handsome Lincoln sitting room, is a Lay-Z-Boy recliner.
I applaud The Huntington for putting the work of a local playwright and a local director on its mainstage. (Lees studied at Boston University and now resides here. Towers, who has directed for the Huntington before, is the Artistic Director of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell.) I would suggest that Nicholas Martin go one step further next time and offer Boston the opportunity to see one of Lees' more recent efforts, perhaps in its inaugural production.
Nixon's Nixon at The Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue in Boston extended through April 7th.
For additional information and tickets call 617 266-0800 or visit www.huntingtontheatre.org.