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Manbites Dog Theater Review: Nixon's Nixon Is a Searing Look at a Disgraced President

August 17, 2004 - Durham, NC:


Nixon's Nixon, a 90-minute 1996 OBIE-winning play by Russell Lees, which is performed without intermission, is a timely political drama. It opened at Manbites Dog Theater on Aug. 12, just three days after the 30th anniversary of the ignominious resignation of President Richard Milhous Nixon (1913-94). Lees' fictional behind-the-scenes look at the disgraced 37th president of the United States at the hour of his greatest vulnerability the evening before he announced his resignation rather than face impeachment and almost certain conviction for his role in the Watergate Scandal is a searing two-character confrontation, superbly staged Manbites Dog guest director Joseph Megel in a magnificent recreation of the Lincoln Sitting Room of the White House created by scenic and lighting designer Shannon Clark.

In imagining an 11th-hour conversation between President Nixon (played brilliantly by Derrick Ivey) and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (quite ably impersonated Carl Martin), Russell Lees lays open the scarred psyches of both men: Nixon, the increasingly paranoid son of a Quaker grocer grew up in California and Kissinger, the awkward son of German immigrants fleeing Nazi oppression who grew up in New York and became of the greatest self-promoters in the whole history of the Executive Branch.

In Nixon's Nixon, Nixon and Kissinger meet late at night for drinks to discuss the imminent resignation of the president. As Nixon contemplates giving up his cherished presidential office and departing Washington, D.C. in disgrace, Nixon gets drunker and drunker and more and more belligerent. Kissinger, on the other hand, is the soul of calm. If Nixon is a cornered rat, verbally lashing out at his tormenters, Kissinger is a rat of another stripe. Self-absorbed and entirely self-serving, Kissinger is more concerned with potential damage to his own reputation than he is with the possibility that a paranoid president with snakes in his boots will do something stupid, such as start a war, to avoid or prolong facing the inevitable.

With a terrific (unaccredited) makeup job, young and handsome Derrick Ivey is a dead ringer for stoop-shouldered, scowling, jowl-shaking, baggy-eyed "Tricky Dick" Nixon. Indeed, he not only looks like the former president; he sounds so much like him that he seems to be channeling Nixon's anguish from beyond the grave. Credit voice/dialect coach Christine Morris for a superb job here.

Even though he never adopts and sustains a really convincing German accent his accent is pedantic and vaguely Eastern European and unlike the all-too-familiar Dr. Strangelove accent of Henry the K Carl Martin is likewise effective as Kissinger, a stiff, awkward man seemingly uncomfortable in his own body.

Nixon's Nixon is at its best and funniest when Ivey as a manic Nixon and Martin as a stolid Kissinger are reenacting important meetings with world leaders, meetings where they forged foreign-policy triumphs. Their canny impressions of some of the household names of the 1960s and 1970s provide many of the show's black comedy moments.

With bravura performances by Derrick Ivey and Carl Martin and provocative staging by Joseph Megel, Manbites Dog's presentation of Nixon's Nixon is a must-see drama that is sure to grace some Triangle critics' 10-best lists. This is the best Manbites Dog show in years, made even better by the considerable contributions of costumer Diana Waldier and sound designer Edward Hunt. So, buy you tickets now before the show sells out.

Second Opinion: Aug. 11th Independent Weekly preview by Byron Woods: http://indyweek.com/durham/2004-08-11/woods.html. Aug. 14th News & Observer review by staff writer Orla Swift: http://www.triangle.com/calendar/theaterreview/story/1527797p-7702769c.html; Aug. 18th Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods: http://indyweek.com/durham/current/woods.html; Aug. 20 News & Observer "stage picks" by staff writer Orla Swift: http://www.newsobserver.com/lifestyles/story/1546241p-7730968c.html [inactive 9/04]; and Robert's Reviews preview: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0804.html#NNpre.

Manbites Dog Theater presents Nixon's Nixon Wednesday-Saturday, Aug. 18-21, at 8:15 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 22, at 3:15 p.m. at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $15 Friday-Sunday and $12 Wednesday-Thursday, with $2 discount per ticket for advance online credit-card purchases. 919/682-3343 or http://www.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=150. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/2/.