Russell Lees’ Nixon’s Nixon is an animalistic powerplay in the manner of McClure’s The Beard and Mamet’s Oleanna; two hungry beings in a single room, both jockeying for the upper hand. Here, it’s Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, alone on the eve of Nixon’s resignation. To say the situation is timely is an understatement: A presidency is plagued with an unpopular war. Divisive issues distract voters from rampant corruption.
A politician is a salesman, which is to say, a manipulative actor. Throughout the Hamner Theatre’s production, Nixon and Kissinger roleplay; meeting with Chairman Mao, negotiating with Brezhnev. Nixon imagines himself as Napoleon returning from exile to a hero’s welcome. He uses a bust of Lincoln as his Yorick and, later, on his knees, pleads to God for mercy. The room is sparse and utilitarian, with enough chairs to suggest the futility of Ionesco. The men swill themselves in brandy.
Lees suggests (in his conveniently provided author’s notes) that the actors playing the two roles should look little like the actual people they portray. Hamner obeys by casting Chris Patrick as Nixon and Chris Baumer as Kissinger. Patrick is young and more Rowan Atkinson than Tricky Dick. Baumer is genial and lanky, two things Kissinger never was.
Baumer and Patrick are a power plant, carefully and adeptly dealing out niceties under the veil of a political pissing contest between two of the most powerful men in the world. Patrick plays Nixon straight. This is smart. A less confident performer might pillage the toolbox of Rich Little and ruin a lean and simmering role. Since Kissinger always seemed to be doing a mediocre impression of himself, Baumer’s on-and-off dialect isn’t a burden as much as an inevitability of the scenario. Seeing these two local favorites at the top of their game is refreshing. The evening is an uninterrupted 90 minutes of pure acting gold. Tension leads to reconciliation leads to backstabbing, unflinchingly.
Since this is entirely an actor’s play, director Marcello Rollando might have done a lot of work or very little. It’s tough to tell when you pair strong performers with an undulating and solid script.
Much of the play is about how these men want to be remembered, how the history books will present them. Nixon’s Nixon is a sympathetic depiction of Nixon, who is still seen as a crook who hoodwinked the nation. But consider, he admitted his faults, conceded his position, and sealed his place as an impotent leader. Was that less brave than if he’d claimed no wrongdoing and kept hammering through, as many of his successors have?