Late on August 7, 1974, the night before he announced his resignation, President Richard Nixon summoned Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to join him in his favorite White House retreat, the cozy Lincoln Sitting Room. Republican senators had informed him earlier that day that he would not survive an impeachment vote, and U.S. Judge John J. Sirica had ordered him to turn over hundreds of hours of incriminating secretly-taped recordings made in the White House related to Watergate.
Inspired by this historically factual meeting, “Nixon’s Nixon,” at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown through Oct. 6, tells playwright Russell Lees’s version of what happened that storied evening in his intermission-less 90-minute production.
Kissinger assumes Nixon is prepared to resign. He knows the inescapable political noose of impeachment and conviction is his boss’s only other option. But Kissinger assumes wrong.
Instead, he walks in on an invigorated Nixon, intoxicated by brandy and denial, wildly dancing around to deafening classical music. “Americans like fighters. Underdogs. The scrappier the better,” the president croons, waving his brandy glass like a conductor’s baton. “That’s me now. I’m the underdog. Now I’m the guy to root for.” He insists his adoring public will someday embrace him as a hero, remembering his major successes (China, Russia) and forgetting what he calls his minor transgressions (Vietnam, Watergate).
Kissinger’s poker face melts and his body stiffens as he braces himself for what he realizes will be a bumpy ride. But the Nobel Peace Prize-winning diplomat also knows his fate hinges on successfully convincing the president to accept the inevitable and resign. Otherwise, Kissinger’s pursuit of his own geopolitical goals and quest for historical glory are at best in limbo and at worst over. He is not prepared to walk the impeachment plank to political oblivion. He will do whatever it takes to extricate himself from this sinking ship and, like a parasitic barnacle, attach himself to whatever will keep his political ambitions and projects afloat.
He lets Nixon lead him on a surreal journey reliving the top 10 list of their associate triumphs. The two world leaders play out the fantasy – Kissinger awkwardly pretends to be Chairman Mao and the Soviet leader Brezhnev as a manic Nixon reenacts his moments of glory.
It is an hour into the play before the word “resign” is even uttered aloud.
Kissinger, impatient and manipulative, interrupts Nixon’s rants to coax him to put in a good word for him with Vice President Gerald Ford. “I can’t continue my work until you get out of the way,” he finally states. Nixon, who really just wants to be loved, isn’t giving in without a fight. He even beseeches God, whom he addresses on bent knees. “I feel like I should be asking forgiveness but I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong,” he bemoans. “They gave me so much power. Why are they surprised I used it?”
He relishes unnerving Kissinger by showing him a transcript from one of the tapes that would implicate the secretary of state in criminal activity if the tape were to be made public, which would only happen if Nixon didn’t resign.
The leads are played by two local members of the Jewish community. As Nixon, Jeremiah Kissel is exhilarating and exhausting. He is all twitches and staccato gestures, one minute an overgrown child and the next, a raving, paranoid fighter. Joel Colodner plays Kissinger as cool and conniving, an immigrant who fled Nazi Germany and ended up arguably more powerful than the president. A less compatible couple is hard to imagine.
And yet, the two have more in common than appears at first blush. Both worship at the altar of “requited ambition.” Both are obsessed with how history will judge them. And both will stoop to anything to maintain the grip on power they feel is rightfully theirs. They play off each other seamlessly, richly dancing a pas-de-deux that makes obvious their years as political bedfellows.
Lees wrote the play in 1995. Unlike Aaron Sorkin, who revised “To Kill a Mockingbird” to reflect contemporary politics, he would not alter his script to fit these times. “The drama revolves around the fact that great power is held by flawed individuals,” he told the Journal. “I believe this theme holds up in almost any political situation.”
Performances are at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Call 617-923-8487 or visit newrep.org.