When it comes to television, the 37th President of the United States is best remembered for an unfortunate debate against John F. Kennedy and later for those infamous words, “I am not a crook.” But it was a younger, more idealistic Richard Milhous Nixon who used television to warm American hearts and save his political skin by telling the story of a little cocker spaniel namEd Checkers and bringing new respectability to the words “Republican cloth coat.”
But that half-hour speech from 1952, where the Republican vice-presidential candidate defended himself against accusations of financial improprieties that were about to cost him his place on the ticket, is merely the frame of Douglas McGrath’s charged up, gritty and frequently funny drama, Checkers. In fact, though the career of the guy they used to call Tricky Dick has been famously explored on stage and screen numerous times (The Selling of the President, All The President’s Men, Nixon in China, Frost/Nixon…), this may be the first major work that focuses on the crumbling romance between the candidate and his wife, Pat, as his growing expertise in playing the political game makes him less and less the man she married.
The play is bookended by scenes set in 1966, where political strategist Murray Chotiner (Lewis J. Stadlen, terrific as the hard-boiled, old-school politico) tries to convince Nixon, retired from politics since losing the California gubernatorial race in 1962, to head the 1968 Republican ticket. He knows his old pal is still smarting from the 1960 loss where he won the popular vote and lost the electoral college under strong suspicions of voter fraud in the close contests in Illinois and Texas (winning those states would have given him the election), and is feeling useless in his private life as an attorney, but he isn’t aware that Pat is blissfully happy to be out of politics and raising a normal American family.
Anthony LaPaglia’s Nixon begins with the gravel-voiced California accent and suspicious stare that kept impressionists in business through the early 1970s, but when the man’s memory is triggered back to 1952, where the bulk of the play remains, he’s an earnest, decent and energetic 39-year-old senator just getting noticed by the public for his vigorous anti-Communist stance. Loaded with ideas for America’s future, he sets them aside when presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower’s handlers explain that they want a running mate whose sole role is that of attack dog.
Shy about the spotlight, Kathryn Erbe’s Pat Nixon prefers to hand out campaign buttons rather that stand by her husband’s side as he makes speeches. Their relationship is first seen as cordially affectionate, but a truly loving partnership, with Pat being the moral influence in her husband’s decision-making. (There’s a wonderful scene where they reminisce humorously about their courtship.) But being their first national campaign, Chotiner teaches her what is expected of a political wife, and while her husband still depends on her heavily she can see small changes in him as he begins sacrificing his honesty for the greater good. Erbe is just outstanding as Pat, showing the woman struggling with her unpreparedness for her role and her disillusionment in the political process. When she stands up for herself, it’s a thrilling and surprising moment, but the audience’s knowledge of what lies ahead makes it bittersweet.
The story is told in a collection of pointed short scenes, and while the main characters are solidly sympathetic, director Terry Kinney has the supporting ensemble playing at a slightly elevated level that makes the structure work like a series of editorial cartoons. Particularly effective are John Ottavino’s Ike, a fatherly icon happy to stay far away from controversy, and Robert Stanton’s image-conscious RNC Chairman Herbert Brownell. When you add Neil Patel’s uncomplicated interior set serving as a screen for Darrel Maloney’s clever collection of location-setting pen-and-ink style projections, Checkers often resembles a live-action Herblock cartoon.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Kathryn Erbe and Anthony LaPaglia; Bottom: Anthony LaPaglia and Lewis J. Stadlen.
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