New Rep's "Nixon's Nixon": "I Am Not a....."

Jeremiah Kissel in "Nixon's Nixon"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

New Rep's new Artistic Director Michael Bobbitt kicked off the company's thirty-fifth season with an enthusiastic welcome to its first production, the satirical political play Nixon's Nixon by Russell Lees. The work, which holds the distinction of having had two Off-Broadway runs, first in 1996 and a revival in 2006, imagines the extended conversation that took place between Richard Nixon (Jeremiah Kissel) and Henry Kissinger (Joel Colodner) in the White House (with no one else present) on the night before Nixon announced his resignation. One needn't be a nuclear physicist to grasp how timely the subject matter is; the only question might be whether it is still comedic rather than tragic in our age of political strife. Director Elaine Vaan Hogue, whose previous work with New Rep includes Straight White Men, Oleanna, Imagining Madoff and Kite Runner, assumes the task of conveying the mindset of the then occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as he wrestled with his impending decision. Given the constraints and limitations of a typical two-hander, she succeeds in keeping the play from being too static or preachy, necessitating that these two consummate professional actors present credible portrayals of all-too-familiar larger-than-life historical figures.

It's a credit to Kissel and Colodner that they manage to present believable characters without resorting to caricatures, given how easy it would be to coast on familiar turf. Though they do occasionally give into the unavoidable temptation to stoop to cliched images (such as Nixon's V-for-Victory stance), they manage to pull off some humorous depictions of personages like Brezhnev, JFK, Mao, Golda Meir and Julie Nixon. They're supported by a creative team that provides much detail, from the Scenic Design by Afsoon Pajoufar to the Costume Design by Zoe Sundra to the Lighting Design by Aja Jackson and Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill.

Jeremiah Kissel and Joel Colodner in "Nixon's Nixon"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

As Vaan Hogue puts it in the program notes, the use of power to attain personal gain can be seen to be inevitable, at least in the wrong hands. The playwright has stated that his work is "not so much about historical personages and their character traits as it is about the very human and personal struggles in retaining or relinquishing great power and coming to terms with one's legacy". As the President says in the play, "they gave me so much power, why are they surprised I used it?", and is asked by Kissinger whether he contemplates "what the history books will make of you" and whether he wonders about his ultimate place in history.

Very telling for our current time, Vaan Hogue quotes two additional larger-than-life figures, Karl Marx ("history repeats itself- first as tragedy, second as farce") and Abe Lincoln ("the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people"). The parallels are obvious, as the playwright rightly insists that he doesn't seek to reflect historical accuracy, but "the fear and failings that so often turn politics into drama". This play resonates in just ninety intermissionless minutes as a fantasia of sorts.

One may relive that era (and acknowledge our own) at New Rep until October 6th.

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