Nixon’s Nixon was originally presented in 1996 and is currently being revived with the original cast members at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village. The play takes place in the Lincoln Sitting Room at the White House and imagines what went on during an historic meeting between Nixon and Kissinger on the eve of Nixon’s resignation.
These two larger-than-life characters are expertly played by actors Gerry Bamman and Steve Mellor, who evoke the spirit of Nixon and Kissinger without succumbing to fatuous caricature.
The play is alternately intense, hilarious and sad. Nixon is portrayed as being so desperate to remain in office that he tries to blackmail Kissinger into orchestrating an international crisis that will enable him to postpone impeachment. Kissinger simply wants to ease Nixon out while keeping his own title as Secretary of State.
It’s delicious satire to watch these two alpha-dogs chase each other around the room in rabid fits of panic and aggression. Nixon spends much of the meeting reliving the various “triumphs” of his administration and cajoling Kissinger to re-enact these scenarios. (“I’ll be Brezhnev, you be me!” Nixon urges.)
When the dialogue turns nasty, Kissinger is quick to inform Nixon that “If you’re remembered it will be for what I did!” Nixon insists that until Watergate blew up in his face, he “appealed to the Richard Nixon in everybody.”
It’s a testament to the skill of Mellor and Bamman that they are able to humanize these two contemptible power mongers and even crack open a small window of empathy. At certain moments, when the acidic satire briefly ebbs, it’s possible to almost pity them for the warped, paranoid mindset that’s imprisoned them. Almost.
We had a brief interview with Steve Mellor, who plays Kissinger, before a performance last week...
Gothamist: How much research did you do to prepare for the role of Kissinger?
Steve Mellor: I watched tapes to get down the vocal pattern and stuff like that. I sort of believe the script tells you everything you need to know. I did read the biography of Kissinger by Walter Isaacson.
Gothamist: What is your personal opinion of Kissinger as a political figure?
Steve Mellor: I’m not with him politically on anything, but I’m trying to create as much sympathy in the audience for the guy. If I can help people feel the pain of a main hoist on his petard then I’m doing what the role calls for.
Gothamist: Is it hard for you to separate yourself from any personal feelings you have about him?
Steve Mellor: By focusing on the script I’m playing with the dilemma the guy is going through so, even if I may not agree with the guy politically - or Nixon for that matter - the job is to pretend. The script is not utterly sympathetic to these guys but I also don’t think the script is really political; you could hate Kissinger and end up feeling for him in certain moments.
There are people who have come into it hating Nixon and ended up crying and feeling sorry for him by the end of the play. What’s interesting about the piece for me is that it’s emotionally subversive that way.
Gothamist: Has anyone who was involved in Washington politics at the time come to see the show?
Steve Mellor: The first time we did the show Daniel Ellsberg www.ellsberg.net/index.html came two or three times. We talked to him after the show so that was a lot of fun. Leonard Garment, who was a lawyer for Nixon, came and talked with us afterward; he loved the show. Some friends of Kissinger also came and I spoke with them afterward. I had a feeling that he had sent them to check it out but they were very nice.
Gothamist: Has anyone approached you with any knowledge of what happened during that fateful meeting between Nixon and Kissinger?
Steve Mellor: Neither one of the participants have said much about what went on. Supposedly Nixon got Kissinger on the floor to pray with him, but it’s fuzzy. We know they were in there for about an hour and twenty minutes and Kissinger told friends afterward that it was the most traumatic experience of his life.
Nixon’s Nixon runs through October 28th at the Lucille Lortel Theatre at 121 Christopher Street. Tickets can be purchased through Ticket Central.