Of Lies and Men
If Richard Nixon had been able to hire Luigi Pirandello as his spin doctor, the American public might have regarded Watergate as little more than a mirage in the vast political desert. But the Italian dramatist (and occasional fascist) died some forty years before the disgraced president was forced from office on August 9, 1974. As theatrical fate would have it, though, local audiences now have the chance to see both of these master illusionists work their magic -- and, in the process, to compare Nixon's infamous ability to mangle the truth with Pirandello's celebrated talent for blurring it.
First up, out of respect for matters of state, is Nixons Nixon. A hit when it was presented by Robert Lupone's Manhattan Class Company in 1995 (and off-Broadway a year later), Russell Lees's biting satire is being given its regional premiere by the Aurora Fox Theatre Company. The publicly funded organization has hired a pair of local Equity actors to perform the enjoyable two-hander -- a practice usually considered a financial risk for smaller theater companies that can't afford to pay Equity wages; in this case, however, the gamble yields plenty of artistic rewards.
The ninety-minute, intermissionless piece centers around a conversation that's rumored to have taken place between Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, on the eve of Nixon's capitulation. While the subject matter might seem like ancient history to the younger set, it will no doubt resonate with older viewers who, having been subjected to Nixon's endless TV appearances, learned to think of his sweaty upper lip as the equivalent of Pinocchio's growing nose.
Not that the actors deliver exaggerated imitations. On the contrary, Duane Black, who plays Nixon, and Gregory Price, who takes on the role of Kissinger, wisely opt to point up the dynamic between deposed leader and double-dealing advisor while suggesting a few of each man's more familiar, outsized mannerisms. Some episodes cross over into farcical overdrive, but never to the point of becoming caricatures of the jowl-shaking Nixon or deep-throated Kissinger.
In fact, director Bev Newcomb-Madden and the actors maintain an iron grip on believability while launching Lees's send-up to stratospheric heights, beginning with Black's maniacal armchair conducting of the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. Slumped in an overstuffed leather chair on one side of the Lincoln sitting room's fireplace (Nick and Joan Cimyotte designed the marvelous setting), Nixon looks dead in the water before Kissinger even enters. But as Black and Price engage in crass small talk -- Latin American countries "love a guy with balls!" confides Nixon -- it's evident that the "old man," as his speechwriter Pat Buchanan used to call him, is gearing up for a long war in the trenches.
Appropriately enough, Black's Nixon is every inch a pygmy warrior king. He looks like a hunched-over, punch-drunk has-been as he reassures himself that the American people "love an underdog, a fighter"; he sounds like a sore loser when he decries the unfair role technology played in bringing him down -- even though he was the one who installed tape recorders all over the White House ("There aren't any tapes of Lincoln saying bad stuff. But he did"); and, after contemplating whether he'll do time for his offenses, sheepishly argues that obstruction of justice is more or less on par with unsociable behavior ("I'm the guy who came to the party and peed in the lemonade!"). And Tricky Dick's weed patch of delusion becomes completely overgrown when, reflecting on the troubles he had during the Vietnam war, Nixon looks up at an oil portrait of the Great Emancipator and whines, "Look at the body count in the Civil War! And he's on Mount Rushmore!"
Black's riotous antics are devilishly complemented, insult for indiscretion, by Price's Kissinger, who comes off as more of a Machiavellian power-grubber than wise diplomat. He defers to his boss's wide-ranging authority and humors his desire to relive past glories, but subtly needles Nixon about his shortcomings and blunders. Until, that is, Nixon threatens to release a ream of transcripts that his old buddy J. Edgar Hoover secretly made of Kissinger's bugged phone conversations.
Throughout, the duo re-enacts past encounters with various heads of state (an art-versus-life technique, by the way, that won Pirandello his reputation as an avant-garde dramatist decades earlier). Between slurps of various spirits, Nixon cajoles and then orders Kissinger to role-play several twentieth-century notables, including China's Chairman Mao, the Soviet Union's Leonid Brezhnev and the dandy who defeated Nixon in the 1960 presidential race, John F. Kennedy ("He was sitting there, rich and presidential like a cut of veal," Nixon remembers of their post-election meeting). There's even a scene in which Kissinger impersonates Nixon while Nixon plays the part of Brezhnev -- an arrangement that allows Nixon/Brezhnev to interrogate Kissinger/Nixon about Nixon and Kissinger's relationship. It's an interesting (and maddeningly Pirandellian) turn of events that underscores Kissinger's assertion that a president must be "properly duplicitous" while performing on the world stage. "But there's no backstage," argues Nixon. "Sometimes the mask gets stuck."
Near play's end, the auditorium falls silent when the men reflect upon their humble backgrounds and vaunted positions -- an affecting exchange that evokes decades-old feelings about being robbed of our trust in government by the man who kept insisting "I am not a crook!" Luckily for the Fox's audience members, the only thing that gets stolen during this enjoyable evening is the chance to take a bathroom break -- a situation that prompted a few opening-night patrons to pop in and out of the theater whenever they got the urge. Of course, their behavior might not have been an indication of indifference or incivility. It could be that the play's account was vivid enough that some folks thought they were watching the country unravel once more on television.
That theory would certainly appeal to Pirandello, who, like Lees (an engineer-turned-playwright), belongs to a long line of dramatists who sampled other walks of life before turning to writing plays. In many cases, that delayed entry into the profession results in a greater appreciation for the theater's capacity to transcend literal boundaries -- a power that frequently eludes artists whose limited view of life gives rise to turgid family plays.
For Pirandello, a sometime-novelist and full-time university lecturer, crafting plays offered the chance to personify the age-old debate about the relationship between art and life. (His most famous play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, is generally regarded as one of the modern theater's seminal works.) And as Germinal Stage Denver's production of Its the Truth (if you think it is) demonstrates, the quest to arrive at a state of objective truth -- whether in affairs of state or family matters -- is a purely subjective process.
Although the 1917 work takes a while to get going -- Pirandello penned it at a time when middle-class audiences were accustomed to sitting through discussions that lasted nearly two hours -- the enjoyment in watching it, then as now, lies in observing the slight shifts of strategy that modulate the high-minded gabfest. And it doesn't hurt that director Ed Baierlein, who also designed the production and plays a small role, has gone to considerable lengths to lend the effort a pleasing look: Wearing fashionable costumes that complement the overall color scheme, the actors carry out their debate against a cozy, Etruscan-hued setting that consists of curved archways and a beautifully realized faux-tile floor.
As a few bouncy strains fade out, the lights come up on a trio of gossiping relatives. Seems that Ponza, the new deputy councilor in town, has raised some eyebrows by setting up house with his never-seen wife in one dwelling while his mother-in-law rents an apartment a few blocks down the street. (Why the forced separation of in-laws is cause for suspicion is anyone's guess.) After considerable discussion, the townsfolk vow to get to the bottom of Ponza's situation by going directly to the source(s). But questioning both Ponza and his mother-in-law only results in more confusion: Each claims the other is crazy. (Again, why this should seem out of place...)
To wit or (as is more often the case here) not, the mother-in-law contends that, following an earthquake in their village, Ponza wanted to possess his wife for himself, and therefore won't permit the mother to visit his home. Ponza, on the other hand, says that his wife actually died in the earthquake, a fact that the mother-in-law refuses to accept: She thinks that his new wife is actually her dead daughter. The rest of the play centers around the police commissioner, chief councilor and district governor's search for evidence, such as death and marriage certificates, that will confirm who is telling the truth. (Luckily, the matter of taking a polygraph never comes up, even though the incident that started this domino-like chain of events happened four years ago.) But even when the officials manage to interrogate Ponza and his mother-in-law while they're in the same room, the truth flickers about like a flame in an ever-shifting breeze.
While the discussion stalls now and then, Baierlein and the actors (one of whom is double-cast) move things along at a brisk pace, providing the eleven-character play with a host of distinct and, for the most part, fully drawn portrayals. In fact, their collective jawboning, which properly raises more questions than it answers, hits home in an age when people seem desperate to know the unknowable. Especially when one character tells the befuddled police commissioner that he has an obligation to restore the country's sense of domestic tranquility. "The people want one truth...just make sure you credit your sources," he says. It's a chillingly accurate observation that, in a single moment, crystallizes the entire, drawn-out argument. Seeking the truth, Pirandello seems to suggest, is a scarier, more relative and uncertain enterprise than most people are willing to undertake.
Maybe that's why Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, began his first speech as president by reassuring us that "our long national nightmare" was over.
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