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Nixon's Nixon

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Can't wait for Halloween? Fret not: It's arrived early this year, with an MCC revival at the Lucille Lortel Theatre of Russell Lees's Nixon's Nixon that will chill you to your bones.

Ladies and gentlemen, this one is not for the faint of heart. The darkest and most twisted of carnival sideshows haven't prepared you for the grotesques on offer here: If you turn white at the thought of Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger - as so many do - you'll be particularly susceptible to this horrifying excuse for a production that, under better circumstances, would rightfully be lauded for reviving the good name of the revival.

Because, in certain ways, this is a revival in the truest sense of the word: Both original stars, Gerry Bamman and Steve Mellor, have been engaged by original director Jim Simpson to recreate their respective original roles of Nixon and Kissinger. Therefore, you would have every right to expect you'd experience this fantasia about the night before Nixon's resignation just as did audiences as its premiere a decade ago, with all its original impact intact. But you would almost certainly be wrong.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not see the original production. But by all accounts, its transporting power was derived from Bamman and Mellor not actively impersonating their historical counterparts but appearing more or less as themselves. Bereft of vocal or prosthetic affectation, the actors reportedly created a compelling psychological environment in which the men's actions and foibles - both real and imagined - could be deconstructed free of the emotional baggage usually summoned by the merest mention of either man's name.

Now, however, suggestion has given way to full-blown imitation, with Bamman and Mellor not playing themselves playing Nixon and Kissinger, but actually playing Nixon and Kissinger. As Lees's play is far too insubstantial to support even that hint of reality, a once compelling conflation of mental and theatrical conceits has become thunderously unfunny sketch comedy.

That's even how it looks and sounds, with a washed-out, empty set by original designer Kyle Chepulis that vaguely depicts the White House's Lincoln Sitting Room, and, more importantly, the actors themselves. Bamman's makeup and hairstyle resemble less the real Nixon than one of those ubiquitous, plastic Halloween masks; Mellor intones all his lines like a Catskill comic's impression of a sozzled Ted Kennedy. (His climactic line, shouted at the top of his constricted lungs, is "I am trying to prop up a crumbling empire!", which would have similar urgency if uttered by Adam Sandler.)

As Bamman scampers and mugs his way about the stage, sits like a low-rent drag queen who doesn't want to give away his physical secrets, or orders Mellor about like a kindergartner's bratty older sister, you realize it's impossible to swallow either this play's ideas or its comedy. When the two merge, especially in the numerous historical recreations that find Nixon and Kissinger spuriously posing as everyone from Brezhnev to Golda Meir, the results are excruciating excursions into multilayered caricature that would struggle to amuse even if they were still moderately topical.

In fairness, one can see how these moments might have been highlights under the original conception, further supporting the show's apparent contention that all politics is performance, and politicians in trouble are the world's wiliest actors.

But as Lees's portrayals of neither Nixon nor Kissinger remotely suggest the real men, Bamman's and Mellor's attempts to more fully evoke them offend with their broad disconnectedness. Lees's lines make Nixon little more than clueless and fun-loving, and Kissinger strictly power mad. When the actors seize on nothing else, as they do here, those traits are highly ill suited to the serious-toned discussions of eavesdropping, foreign policy, and legacy building that constitute the script.

Simpson has allowed Bamman's and Mellor's portrayals to become so neo-vaudeville in breadth and depth (or lack of it) that you half expect the 80-minute show to be constantly interrupted by the appearance of magicians and tricycle-riding poodles. It's quite believable that Lees and a majority of the audience see Nixon and Kissinger as deserving little more respect than impeccably trained canines, and that Nixon's Nixon is thus exactly what's called for.

But given the scandals that rocked the Clinton and Bush administrations, which have mostly unfolded after the play's initial production, such prurient politicking feels hopelessly outdated. Something more respectful, if not to the men themselves but to the times in which we live now, would be a more apropos prescription than a production wanting us to believe the last 32 years of politics - and the last 80 years of entertainment's evolution - never happened.

Nixon's Nixon
Through October 28
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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