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Nixon's Nixon

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NIXON'S NIXON, Writers' Theatre Chicago. Richard Nixon is a natural character for the stage--extreme, complex, often contradictory, brooding, vengeful, ruthless, manipulative, needy, self-loathing, self-overcoming, and self-destructive. And in fact there's a superb one-man show (made into a movie by Robert Altman in 1984, Secret Honor) that dramatizes Nixon's last troubled, bizarre night in the White House--a night, as reported by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in The Final Days, when the president got plowed, flirted with suicide, and talked to the painting of Lincoln.

Russell Lees's two-person play zeroes in on the same inherently dramatic evening. But maybe because Lees also includes Nixon's sly worm of an adviser, Henry Kissinger, the play feels strained and unfocused. Not content with merely giving Nixon his long, dark night of the soul, Lees junks up the script with flashbacks to Nixon's triumphs: the summit meetings and trips to Peking and the Great Wall.

Still, it's not hard to see why actors would be drawn to the play: who wouldn't relish the chance to play not only Nixon or Kissinger but also Chairman Mao, Jack Kennedy, Leonid Brezhnev, and Golda Meir? But actor beware. Lees's script will exact its revenge. Even Larry Yando and William Brown find it hard to gracefully negotiate this contrived story, which idiotically hinges on the question of will he or won't he resign? As Nixon, Yando smiles a bit too warmly and sincerely. And Brown's Kissinger suffers because the actor keeps dropping his thick German accent.

--Jack Helbig

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