Review: 'Nixon's Nixon' is entertaining and timely theater

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BRATTLEBORO Now in its fourth year as the Hooker-Dunham Theater and Gallery's Company-in-Residence, Shoot The Moon has earned a reputation for entertaining and thought-provoking theater. STM's current production — Russell Lee's "Nixon's Nixon" playing its final performances this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. — is no exception. "Nixon's Nixon" hilariously re-imagines the infamous meeting between then President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger on the eve of Nixon's resignation.

Lee's satirical and yet painfully accurate play puts us in the room at this momentous point in time. It is a scene of extreme desperation for Nixon. The stack of cards he has built is about to collapse upon his head. Kissinger, architect of strategies of aggression throughout the world — from Vietnam to Chile, from Africa to the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East — is also desperate, clinging to his own hold on power even as Nixon's inevitable demise impends. Drowning their sorrows in Nixon's finest brandy, the increasingly loaded men act out their "triumphs" and fears in hysterically comical exaggerations based on their actual outsized personalities driven by their equally outsized egos.

Colin Grube channels the theatrical, smirking, nasty-mouthed, power-obsessed Nixon and Elias Burgess convincingly portrays the squirmy, self-important Kissinger. Together, they evoke a palpable sense of this historic meeting. They capture the ridiculousness and humor of the men's outrageous views of themselves. "Nixon's Nixon" allows us to laugh at Nixon and Kissinger's foibles while recoiling at the horror of how their lust for power and need to assure their "place in history" guided their unconscionable actions. Grube and Burgess bring to life these men so obsessed with maintaining power that they even consider bringing the world to the verge of nuclear catastrophe as a possible means to save their own political skins.

As STM's audiences have come to expect, Josh Moyse, the director of "Nixon's Nixon" and artistic director of Shoot The Moon, has chosen powerful source material which he amplifies by the creative use of the Hooker-Dunham's intimate space. In contrast to STM's production of Tennessee Williams' "Glass Menagerie" where Moyse opened up the playing space by "flipping" the theater — seating the audience on the stage and the action in the tiers of the house — in "Nixon's Nixon," he takes the opposite tack and amplifies the sense of claustrophobia, of two desperate, trapped men as their political world collapses, by limiting them to a few square feet of stage space. Moyse accurately describes the encounter of Nixon and Kissinger as a wrestling match, pitting these two men struggling against each other, yet simultaneously utterly dependent on one another.

It is impossible to see the play other than in the context our current political world. We can only imagine what goes through Trump's mind when he posts his incendiary tweets. How those who oppose him must wish the public could hear taped recordings of his meetings with subordinates and foreign leaders. "Nixon's Nixon" reminds us that Nixon's impeachable offense was ordering the theft of Democratic Party documents and his attempt to cover up that theft. Trump has thus far eluded being forced to confront evidence that he did just that, not through the bumbling "plumbers" at the Watergate Hotel, but via the intermediary of the autocratic leader of a foreign power.

STM has proven to be a worthy company-in-residence of the Hooker-Dunham by bringing audiences exciting, imaginative, and innovative theater with a high level of professionalism. Alistair Follansbee, stage manager, ensures that productions flow smoothly by working closely with STM from the early stages of development of each production through to adroit handling of lights and sound for performances. Though "Nixon's Nixon" is a satire, it brings the audience a real sense of what it would have been like to be in the room as Nixon and Kissinger sparred, cajoled, bantered, and reminisced on one of the most remarkable nights in American history.

"Nixon's Nixon" will be performed at the Hooker-Dunham Theater and Gallery, 139 Main St., this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.. Tickets: $15. Reservations: 802-254-9276. www.hookerdunham.org

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