Just a few years after the Broadway premiere of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, which enjoyed a short but very successful run and inspired an Oscar-nominated film version that preserved the praiseworthy performances of Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, Richard Nixon has returned to the New York theater scene, though this time as a character in Douglas McGrath’s respectable but comparatively wimpy 90-minute play Checkers.
Interestingly, both plays explore key moments in Nixon’s career that involved either his manipulation of the home television audience (Checkers) or how he was later manipulated and pulled apart on television by David Frost, a master of that medium (Frost/Nixon). If someone were to write a decent play about how Nixon came across so badly on television during the 1960 presidential debate, we’d have a trilogy about Nixon on television in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Checkers, which is essentially a light political drama with comedic scenes followed by a tense dramatic climax, opens in 1966, with Nixon (played with considerable ease by Tony winner Anthony LaPaglia) living comfortably as an attorney in Manhattan. But once the possibility of running for president in 1968 comes up, he flashes back to 1952, when he became mired in a serious financial scandal while campaigning as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate.
While the bulk of the play observes how Nixon fought to remain in the race in spite of substantial pressure to bow out, the main point of the flashback is to show how Nixon had previously promised his patient and supportive wife Pat (Kathryn Erbe) that he would leave politics for good.
The liveliest portion of the play is lifted directly from the famous speech that Nixon delivered live on television defending $20,000 in expense accounts. It’s worth noting that clips of the original speech, which is named after the Nixon children’s black-and-white dog, can be easily accessed on YouTube.
Director Terry Kinney effectively uses projections to allow for quick scene changes. But Checkers, which is surprisingly sympathetic towards Nixon and made up primarily of very short scenes, is pretty bloodless and bland in quality.
While LaPaglia is unlikely to ever be ranked with the most convincing Nixon impersonators, he imbues the notorious politician with a dogged fighting spirit in confrontations that masks a genuine feeling of insecurity and discomfort. Erbe, best known as Detective Eames on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, makes for an effectively poised Pat. Lewis J. Stadlen, who replaced Nathan Lane in The Producers nearly a decade ago, brings a playful, Marx Brothers-like zest to the supporting role of coarse political strategist Murray Chotiner.