AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Russell Lees
Presented by San Jose Repertory Theatre
Directed by Michael Butler
San Jose Repertory Theatre
101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose, CA / (408) 367-7255

Reviewed by Judy Richter

In some ways, Russell Lee's "Nixon's Nixon" is more relevant today than 10 years ago, when it marked San Jose Repertory Theatre's farewell to its old home in the cramped Montgomery Theatre, which it shared with other organizations. Now housed in its own spacious new theater, the company has revived that production with the same actors and directors. Of course time always gives an actor or director more perspective on a play because of greater maturity. In this case, though, current events put it in a somewhat different light than 10 years ago.

Played without intermission, the action takes place in the Lincoln Sitting Room of the White House starting at 10 p.m. Aug. 7, 1974, the night before President Richard M. Nixon (David Pichette) became the first and only American president to resign. It is known that he and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Peter Van Norden) met that night, but details of their conversation have never been made public. Hence the playwright can only speculate.

Fueled by great quantities of alcohol, Nixon vacillates between continuing to fight -- "I've never been a quitter," he says -- or resigning. Kissinger tries to impress upon him that staying on is not an option, given that he most certainly will be impeached, convicted and removed from office in disgrace. Kissinger also has his own agenda, though. He wants to stay in power when Vice President Gerald Ford is elevated to the Oval Office.

At Nixon's urging, the two engage in play-acting, recalling such moments as Nixon's meetings with the Soviet Union's Leonid Brezhnev and China's Chairman Mao. The latter led the way to the initiation of diplomatic relations between the United States and communist China, still considered one of Nixon's greatest accomplishments. On the other hand, the two men also discuss such stains as Watergate, Vietnam, the indictment and imprisonment of numerous Nixon aides and the White House tapes. They tally up the death toll from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Chile and Kent State -- 800,000 or more.

Director Michael Butler and the actors have sharply honed their performances. The late Scott Weldin's skewed set, evocatively lit by Kurt Landisman, adds to the enjoyment, as do B. Modern's costumes and Jeff Mockus' sound design. Mike Taylor, a high school senior and the commander of the school's Marine Corps Junior ROTC drill team, silently opens the play with an amusingly precise drill treating a folding movie screen as if it were a rifle. The screen is used to show cartoon caricatures of Nixon and Kissinger, but the images and writing are too small to be seen clearly in most parts of the theater.

Nixon remains a fascinating character in American history. This play helps to recall him and the events surrounding his presidency.

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