KPBS AIRDATE: AUGUST 5, 1998
You’ve heard the old adage, ‘Power Corrupts,’ and you’ve seen it played out on a thousand financial and political stages. Well, now you get to see it on two of the Old Globe’s stages, in “Getting and Spending” and “Nixon’s Nixon.” Using actual or fictional characters, real or imagined scenarios, two modern playwrights grapple with guilt, innocence, intention, corruption, deceit and delusion — with greater or lesser success.
The big success story is “Nixon’s Nixon,” a surprisingly irresistible fantasy. I say surprising because I must confess that, as a child of the sixties, I went in with a bias. I grew up hating Richard M. Nixon — I wore a black armband to school on the day he was elected — and I was hardly a fan of his henchman, Henry Kissinger. So, I wasn’t expecting to go gaga over the humorous dramatic fantasy that Russell Lees created.
It’s August 7, 1974. At 10 p.m., Nixon summons his Secretary of State to the Lincoln Sitting Room. What happens in the next three hours, when an inescapable decision is finally reached, is the delightful domain of this moving, touching, infuriating, appalling, hellacious and humorous dramatic speculation. Nixon, vulgar, crazed and paranoid, calms himself with brandy and Tchaikovsky. Kissinger fights desperately and obsessively, to save his reputation and his job. Both men display enormous egos and even larger insecurities. It’s not a pretty picture — but it’s often a hopelessly funny one. To pass the time, to delay the inevitable, and to rehash, re-enact and reinvent the glory days, Nixon forces the stodgy Kissinger into a series of role plays (“You be Brezhnev, I’ll be me;” “You be me, I’ll be Golda Meir”).
It’s a wonderfully imaginative theatrical contrivance. Tautly directed by Charles Towers, beautifully lit and designed, the piece is vividly written and outstandingly performed by veterans of the roles. Keith Jochim nails Nixon’s grimace, stooped shoulders, mannerisms and jiggling jowls, and Tim Donoghue masters Kissinger’s monotonal Germanic rationality. Both are terrific with their emotional swings and world-leader imitations. But beneath the easy laughs is the core of despair and the awareness of a monumental loss of power, one that the victim created but never acknowledged. The story’s a quarter century old, but the possibility is as fresh as tomorrow’s headlines.
“Getting and Spending” could have been ripped from tomorrow’s paper… well, some of it, anyway. A hotshot investment banker, Victoria Phillips, fancies herself a modern-day Robin Hood; she rakes in over $18 million via illegal insider trading, but she uses it to build housing for the homeless. Intention means nothing in a court of law, and she’s been indicted on 30 counts. Now that she’s fired her team of attorneys, the only rescuer who could win her case is the great legal defender who’s about to take his vows as a monk. What starts out plausible gets increasingly unlikely.
The problem is, playwright Michael J. Chepiga hasn’t decided whether this is a comedy, a romance or a courtroom drama. Nor has he settled on a thematic focus: Is this a cautionary tale or an exploration and test of faith?
Act one is a silly, laugh-track sitcom, with punchlines you see coming a mile away. Chepiga has watched too much television; he should stick to what he knows best, the drama he sees daily as a securities lawyer and head of New York’s Legal Aid Society, which provides services to the poor. Into his ultimately preachy ‘I did bad but I did it for good’ story, he throws several superfluous characters, each of whom gets one significant expository or declamatory speech: Victoria’s neurotic pseudo-boyfriend, her well-meaning mother, and a hearing impaired monk, master of hackneyed linguistic misinterpretations. Then there’s a moronic judge, a harridan of a prosecuting attorney and a monk-naif, deliciously played by the magnificent Derek Smith, who distracts from the drama with his irrepressible comedy.
The design is spectacular, sleek, mobile lines of neon and tickertape. The direction, by the renowned John Tillinger, is underwhelming. Linda Purl makes Victoria come alive, and she spars convincingly with James Morrison. He’s credible, but not charismatic enough for the cutthroat dynamo he’s purported to have been. Some of Chepiga’s writing is spot-on, but the piece needs a legal brief of rewrites before it takes its case to New York.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.