On Aug. 9, 1974, facing impeachment and probably prison for his part in the Watergate scandal, president Richard Nixon officially resigned his office, climbed onto a helicopter and spent the rest of his life trying to convince the world he was not a crook. Historians and detail freaks could also tell you that, the day before, on Aug. 8, 1974, Nixon met twice—at 6pm and 9pm—behind closed doors with his secretary of state Henry Kissinger. No one knows what the two men discussed during those meetings, but theories are numerous: they brainstormed ways to blame someone else for Watergate; they ceremoniously burned papers proving they were both involved in the scandal; they got plastered on booze and seriously considered nuking Russia just for the hell of it. All they would say about that night, when asked about it later, was that they spent those meetings on their knees in prayer.
In playwright Russell Lees' 1995 two-actor play Nixon's Nixon, one possible version of those meetings is presented with wit, invention and a sharp-eyed sense of historical geography. Rarely performed, the show begins a five-week Sonoma County Repertory Theater run this weekend featuring Scott Phillips and Ken Sonkin (together again for the first time since appearing in American Buffalo a few seasons back), under the direction of Jon Tracy.
"It's a wonderfully written piece," says Phillips, who plays Nixon to Sonkin's Kissinger. "The way this play is written, the two men talk about fate and history, and as they look back on the things they've tried to accomplish, they actually reneact some of the historic moments of Nixon's term in office. It's very clever and smart."
It's also fast and furious, clocking it at 95 minutes, performed with no intermission.
"This play is a freight train," Phillips says. "It hurtles down the track and never slows down 'til it's over."
Asked what it's like to play a character like Nixon, Phillips admits that there are times in rehearsal when he gets the creeps as he brings Nixon to life at the most vulnerable and agitated moment of the disgraced president's life.
"Nixon had a dark side and a paranoia that is unmatched in American history," he says. "This was one troubled dude. In many ways, this play—and Nixon's whole life and presidency—could stand as a warning not to give too much power to any one leader. At the end of the play, Nixon says, 'I feel like I should be asking for forgiveness but I don't think I did anything wrong. They gave me so much power. Why are they surprised that I used it?'"
The trick in a play like this, with such recognizable real-life characters as Nixon and Kissinger, is to portray the men without straying into parodies or too-literal impersonations. According to Sonkin, that's been a major focus of their work during rehearsal
"It's easy to paint them as cartoons," Sonkin says, "but this play is not a cartoon. I wouldn't even call it satire, though there are satirical moments. There's a lot of funny stuff, but this is a very dramatic, very powerful play. That's why Scott and I were so excited to be able to do it."
Another reason to do it, he suggests, is because the struggles of the Nixon era are not dissimilar to today's turmoils : there's war, racial strife and accusations of abuse of power.
"There are so many parallels to the times we live in now," Sonkin says. "And Nixon and Kissinger were at the heart of all of that stuff. And that's the interesting thing, as an actor. I have to not judge this character, Kissinger, though he as certainly one of the most dastardly men in the history of American foreign policy. As actors, we have to find the humanity in people we are used to thnking of as inhuman. But that's what the play is about—it's about about two fallible men and their bruised humanity."
'Nixon's Nixon' runs Thursday-Sunday through Oct. 26. Sept. 19-20, 25-27, Oct. 2-4, 9-11, 16-8, 23-25 at 8pm; Oct. 19 and 26 at 2pm. Sonoma County Repertory Theater, 104 N. Main St., Sebastopol. $18-$23; Thursday, pay what you will. 707.823.0177.
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