BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Two crucial moments in the Shakespearean life of Richard Nixon are studied sympathetically by Douglas McGrath in “Checkers,” a highly absorbing new play that opened Thursday at the Vineyard Theatre.
It is 1966 and Nixon is still nursing the wounds of his earlier Presidential and California gubernatorial defeats in a Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park. Content to bring up their daughters in well-off circumstances, Pat Nixon is gently happy that her husband has finally left politics and returned to practicing law.
Then political strategist and longtime chum Murray Chotiner sounds out Nixon about bidding for the Presidency in 1968. This causes Nixon to reflect upon their times together campaigning in 1952 when Nixon, then a Senator, was running for Vice President on a ticket with wartime hero Dwight Eisenhower.
Nixon was accused unfairly of using a political slush fund for personal expenses and, as Republican bigwigs pressured him to resign, ultimately went on TV to defend himself in the famous “Checkers” speech.
Constructed in short scenes, the drama packs a lot of juicy political history in 100 swift minutes while painting a compassionate portrait of Nixon – a complex composite of paranoid warts, noble aims and naked ambition – and his relationship with Pat, his long-suffering wife. McGrath’s insightful story is compelling, his dialogue is extremely vivid and he effectively humanizes Nixon.
Terry Kinney, the director, provides a wonderfully-acted production led by Anthony LaPaglia who strikingly evokes Nixon’s manner and voice while never making a cartoon of it. Kathryn Erbe is quietly superb as the shrinking Pat, whose lady-like devotion is constantly assaulted. The understated yet tender bonds between the couple are poignantly realized in the performances of LaPaglia and Erbe.
Much of the play’s humor is snappily delivered by Lewis J. Stadlen whose foul-mouthed Chotiner makes observances to Nixon like, “Your specialty is getting the support of people who don’t want to give it to you.” John Ottavino genially embodies Eisenhower while such excellent actors as Robert Stanton and Kevin O’Rourke look formidable as Republican Party honchos. They, along with Mark Shanahan, Joel Marsh Garland and Kelly Coffield Park, do ably by various fleeting roles.