"Nixon's Nixon" at the Huntington Theatre is a long one-act comedy hypothesizing the conversations of Henry Kissinger (Tim Donoghue) and Richard Nixon (Keith Jochim) at the end of the Nixon presidency.
The setting (Bill Clarke, designer) is the elegantly appointed Lincoln sitting room in the Nixon White House. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln looks down -- reproachfully, as it seems at times to the protagonist.
The time is 10 p.m. on Aug. 7, 1974. Nixon is blasting his stereo, drinking and trying to put off a decision about stepping down. Kissinger arrives to persuade him, first, to resign and avoid impeachment; second, to demand Gerald Ford keep Kissinger as Secretary of State, lest the most important aspects of the Nixon years be lost. Both men are obsessed with how history books will see them.
Nixon can hardly believe how often he has come back from defeat and how clever he has been in tough situations (like the time he stepped out of his limo into a angry mob in South America and starting shaking hands). Sometimes, he says, he would "talk to myself in the mirror: 'I never thought you'd get this far, you sly dog!' "
Donoghue does a pretty good imitation of Kissinger as we knew him then, except that he seems more foolish, less imposing. Jochim has taken a different route to portray Nixon, apparently hoping to capture the spirit of the man and not a Rich Little impersonation.
But what is Nixon's spirit? In the play, as written by Russell Lees and directed by Charles Towers, he is a bit of a cartoon, a pathetic soul, constantly trying to prove himself, desperate to leave a legacy. One wants to know more about his childhood. Whether, for example, he grew up with "What will the neighbors think?" One also wants to know more about his life at home with Pat and daughters Julie and Tricia and how they helped shape who he was.
One will wait for the next Nixon play. This play concentrates on Nixon as he might have reminisced his foreign-policy ploys and triumphs. This Nixon delights in forcing Kissinger to act out the roles of world leaders such as Brezhnev and Mao Tse-tung, as the lighting (designed by Dan Kotlowitz) changes in creative ways to indicate flashbacks.
Nixon is playful reenacting memories, including episodes that didn't end well, such as the plan to invade Cambodia, which in the "Nixon's Nixon" is meant to convince the North Vietnamese that he is crazy and therefore extremely dangerous. Very tricky. He and Kissinger have a high old time thinking that one up.
But each time the stage lighting brings us back to the late-night White House, we see the president sinking deeper into despondency. He starts to count all the people that died because of his foreign policy, including President Allende in Chile. He estimates 800,000 dead. It's depressing. Really, a person should kill himself right after a great triumph, he says; then he'd be remembered as a success. "You don't know when to kill yourself until it's too late." Sniff.
Nixon feels sorry for himself: "If you're the leader, you're sure to disappoint." As he maunders, it becomes clear he suffers from the same inability to recognize mistakes as many another who struts and frets upon the public stage and then is heard no more. (Consider ex-priest John Geoghan saying that molesting children in one family was "not serious"; or the troubled Harvard editor saying she was "proud" of how she belatedly handled conflict of interest.) Remember the post-Watergate Nixon who insisted, "I am not a crook"? (And the popular joke at the time about his first words, "I am not a baby"?)
In the end, as we know, Nixon decides resigning could have a noble aura. As Kissinger, suddenly made frantic by learning his schemes are recorded on tapes that might someday be revealed, shouts to him, the walls of the Lincoln sitting room part dramatically. Brilliant lights bathe Nixon as his helicopter roars to life and he ascends the airstrip stairway for the last time. He waves victory signs with both hands. The president could be ascending to heaven.
The rest is up to the history books.
"Nixon's Nixon" runs through April 7. A discussion with the playwright follows the March 17 matinee. For further information, call (617) 266-0800. .