Nixonian: Michael Butler directs 'Nixon's Nixon' for San Jose Rep.
The president who was 'not a crook' rises again in San Jose Rep's 'Nixon's Nixon,' a reprise of an old favorite
By Marianne Messina
TO LEAVE office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interest of America first." The night before he made this resignation speech, President Richard M. Nixon met for 2 1/2 hours with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. And in the upcoming San Jose Rep production, Nixon's Nixon, Russell Lees creates an imaginary version of that meeting. Although the play trains its humorous lens more on the human drama than the politics, it's an uncanny time to be looking at that point in history. Nixon's apology for "injuries that may have been done" rings with all the sincerity of an apology because "mistakes were made."
On the other hand, the accomplishments and the mission he credits to himself—making friends with "100 million people in the Arab countries," making "crucial breakthroughs" on the path to destroying nuclear weapons "so that they cannot destroy civilization"—sound eerily dovish against the Iraq war and the advancing nuclear warhead program. But that speech reflected how Nixon hoped history would remember him, if he helped it along some. And Nixon's Nixon considers both the humor and the sadness in that motivation. "I took my cue from the title of the play," says director Michael Butler. "It's sort of Nixon's version of himself."
Butler is re-creating his production of 10 years ago for San Jose Rep. As the two statesmen, David Pichette (as Nixon) and Peter Van Norden (as Kissinger) have their work cut out for them. Lees engages the characters in everything from concocting wag-the-dog scenarios to re-enacting the great moments of Nixon's tenure. "They have to do a lot of different accents and character work," Butler explains. "They're playing [Leonid] Brezhnev and Chairman Mao and JFK and Golda Meir."
According to Butler, Lees imported bits of Nixon's farewell speech to his staff into the play, a speech Butler refers to as "very beautiful." To Butler, Nixon's Nixon is about "the very human and universal struggle of retaining or relinquishing power and coming to terms with one's legacy."
As Pichette and Van Norden prepare to reprise their original roles 10 years later, Van Norden reflects, "We have a deeper appreciation, understanding, and sympathy for someone watching their life and their life's work crumble before their eyes."
And this is comedy? Artistic director Timothy Near insists that "it is a very funny play." According to Near, the Rep's earlier production of Nixon's Nixon is the show patrons cite most often as their all-time favorite. "This trio is magic," says Near. And Van Norden reports an almost improvisational rapport among them, allowing them to explore the script "in any way that pops into our head. That includes being as silly as we can or as serious as we like."
Butler has no intention of changing the winning formula. "It's almost more like archaeology than it is rehearsal—digging down through the erosion of 10 years of lost memory to expose the bones of it and getting in there with a little whisk broom and pushing away the dust to find all the wonderful little bits that we did."
Butler plans to use Scott Weldin's original set design, although one thing has changed—this time Butler had to ask permission from Actors' Equity to use the staging, which has a dramatic rake. Besides transgressing Actors' Equity's regulations, the steep incline at the Rep is very demanding on the actors, according to Butler. "And we have to hire a physical therapist to be on the set when they're on there."
Obviously, Butler went for a more "surrealistic" staging than the Lincoln sitting room. "We created a sort of topsy-turvy, ship-of-state-is-sinking sort of world. Everything's white—white furniture, white walls—so it looks very presidential, but at the same time it looks like a fun house, madhouse room." Funhouse? Well, they did call him Tricky Dick.
Nixon's Nixon, a San Jose Repertory Theatre production, previews March 24-25 and 28-29, opens March 30 and runs through April 22 at the Rep 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $14-$56. (408.367.7255)
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