Hysterical President

Center REP and Town Hall take a broad view of history.

The fact that Center REPertory Company’s production of Nixon’s Nixon happened to open the night of the California primary gives Russell Lees’ 1995 comedy a sense of timeliness surprising for a piece of political satire so specific to its 1974 setting.

The premise is as simple as it is contrived: The night before Richard Nixon’s presidential resignation, he calls in Henry Kissinger (that much, at least, is historically accurate). Then the drunken president corrals his Secretary of State into coming up with elaborate schemes to stay in office, and to act out parts such as Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev. Lees’ Nixon is obsessed with how he’ll be remembered by history, as well as with the possibility that he could go to jail for what he did in office.

This is a production that artistic director Michael Butler has staged a number of times before, first in 1997 and again in 2007 at San Jose Repertory Theatre, where his wife Timothy Near is the outgoing artistic director. The current staging keeps San Jose’s production design, including the late Scott Weldin’s remarkable set (an all-white version of the Lincoln Sitting Room in which the planes of perspective shoot out at an extreme slant as if seen through a fish-eye lens), but this time the cast is new.

Andrew Hurteau’s Nixon is a familiar caricature by way of Ed Sullivan, all hunched shoulders and jerky gesticulation. That sort of impression becomes wearying over ninety minutes, so it’s for the best — if not quite believable — that those tics fall away when Nixon’s playing someone else. Other than that, he’s everything posterity requires: shifty and foul-mouthed, at turns viciously paranoid and giddily delusional.

Certainly his cartoonish qualities help to set up a hilariously exaggerated Nixon impression by Steve Irish’s Kissinger, almost like Frankenstein’s monster. Although an English accent occasionally creeps into his German one, and his Kennedy impression is a train wreck, Irish brings a good balance of poise and craftiness to the role. But the script and Butler’s direction conspire to make him show his cards early and often to make it perfectly clear he just wants Nixon out of the way.

As much as it strains credibility to have them parodying world leaders all night, it’s not as unbelievable as the forced poignancy of Nixon asking, “How many did we kill?” The world would be a better place if its leaders actually thought that way. The play isn’t long on subtlety and neither is Butler’s antic staging, but it’s funny and provocative all the same.

Meanwhile in neighboring Lafayette, Town Hall Theatre Company is putting on another comedy about guys holed up in a room role-playing and sleeplessly strategizing to make history. But in Ron Hutchinson’s 2004 play Moonlight & Magnolias, they’re making a movie, and one that promises to be a colossal flop. Oh, the irony! That movie is Gone With the Wind, which would earn ten Oscars after its 1939 release.

Here the setup is even more loosely based on fact: Producer David O. Selznick has shut down filming (true), brought in new director Victor Fleming and script doctor Ben Hecht (true), and locked them in the office with him for five days straight while they rewrote the movie from the ground up (utter nonsense). Hecht hasn’t read the novel and is appalled at its glorification of the slaveholding South and its sloppy storytelling. Selznick is the true believer, the voice of posterity who says that it’s “the greatest melodrama ever written.” Fleming doesn’t give a shit and is happy just to get away from the drunken Munchkins on the set.

Instead of tacking the thorny issues, Hutchinson presents both points of view as if he’s washing his hands of the matter. Let history, or rather the box office, sort it out. The rest is wackiness.

Fleming’s great-great-grandnephew (assuming he has the generations straight), artistic director Kevin Morales keeps the pace frenetic in Town Hall’s production of the popular but very silly play, in which Selznick and Fleming act out the story while Hecht types and bellyaches.

Far from carrying any authority, Michael Patrick Gaffney’s Selznick leaps around his spacious office with wide-eyed enthusiasm as he rhapsodizes about Scarlett O’Hara. Patrick Edwards mugs amiably as boorish, bullying Fleming, and Elias Escobedo makes an earnest-enough straight man as Hecht. Meghann May is an occasional ray of sunshine as singsong-voiced secretary Miss Poppenghul, who comes in periodically with more peanuts and bananas.

Moonlight & Magnolias makes Nixon’s Nixon look nuanced, but the hearty laughs it offers sometimes make up for some of its more hamhanded speechifying about Jews in Hollywood. For stories that are ultimately about the judgment of history, the test of time may not be kind to either of these flimsy plays, but in the short term they’re good for a laugh on pop culture appeal alone. 

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