What a Dick!

There are few of us born before 1965 who wouldn't have given our eyeteeth to be a fly on the wall of the Lincoln Room on August 7, 1974, when, on the fateful eve of Richard Nixon's resignation, the about-to-be-former president summoned Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for a late-night chat. Unless there's another audio tape we don't know about, playwright Russell Lees' Nixon's Nixon brings us as close as we'll ever be to imagining what was said there that night.

Part Saturday Night Live sketch, part political commentary, this two-person off-Broadway hit, reprised here by Actors Theatre of Phoenix, is probably more entertaining than the actual conversation between Tricky Dick and his ambitious lackey. While historians may wince at the broad liberties taken with this famous political partnership, those liberties had this critic (and many members of the opening-night audience) laughing out loud.

Lees' 90-minute one-act is more comic conjecture than serious speculation: Nixon and Kissinger trade quips and rehash history while Kissinger implores his captain to give up the ship. Along the way, they're reduced to reenacting conversations between Nixon and JFK, Brezhnev, Golda Meir and Mao Tse-tung, complete with exaggerated accents and quirky mannerisms, and each of the impersonations is funnier than the one before.

Nixon's Nixon isn't all laughs: Kissinger is clearly more concerned about his own future than he is about the good of the country, and the president manages to disparage nearly every nation and politician on the map before the final curtain. In one incongruous wag-the-dog scene, the pair cook up an international incident that will divert attention from Watergate at the expense of thousands of lives. In another troubling exchange, they tally the number of dead in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

Lees follows these unsettling scenes with wisely timed laughs that remind us this isn't a history lesson, in case we've missed the more obvious clues: Nixon probably wouldn't have been quite so jocular the night before his resignation, and he would have already decided to resign, which he doesn't until this program's final stirring moments.

Richard Glover's Nixon is more interpretation than impersonation, although he's so good at the jowl-flopping and arm-waving that it's easy, after a time, to see him as Tricky Dick. Glover's real achievement is in getting past the sometimes zany material to create sympathy for a man we tend to think of as a pariah: He howls with fear over his inevitable tragedy, and quietly weeps while apologizing to daughter Julie for his disgrace.

Mark De Michele is an E-Ticket Kissinger, a worthy memorial to the man Nixon once referred to as "my own little Jew boy." De Michele's performance is more varied, as he's called on to mimic Brezhnev, Mao Tse-tung, Golda Meir and, eventually, Nixon himself.

Despite these splendid performances, the program's energetic direction, and Paul Black's elegant set and lighting design, the star of this show is Lees' whip-sharp writing. His take on Nixon honors every facet of the man's celebrated personality--the cunning politician, the devoted family man, the megalomaniacal world leader. These are not loving homages; both men are ridiculous in their own way. While Nixon rants about past victories and future contests, Kissinger obsesses about whether Gerald Ford will replace him with Al Haig.

The timing, of course, couldn't be better for a comedy that recalls the country's worst political nightmare. But Nixon's Nixon goes beyond impeachment jokes to reveal the darker side of a man during the most dismal moments of his life. And, while we're laughing at this less-than-sparkling moment in our history, we're also getting what Monica tried to give us--a peek into how powerful people perform in private, when there are no cameras or other recording devices trained on them.

Nixon's Nixon continues through Sunday, March 21, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.