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Writers' Theatre masterfully imagines night before Nixon's resignation
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

Richard Nixon (Larry Yando, left) and Henry Kissinger (William Brown) recall their triumphs and failures in Writers' Theatre's timely remount of Russell Lees' "Nixon's Nixon."


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Published: 9/4/2008 12:12 AM

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Writers' Theatre may well have ruined "Nixon's Nixon" for any other Chicago area company, in the sense that another ensemble might have a tough time rising to the standards set by the Glencoe theater.

In 2000, to great acclaim, artistic director Michael Halberstam staged the local premiere of Russell Lees' fictionalized account of a conversation that might have occurred between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on the night before Nixon resigned his presidency. Eight years later, Halberstam and his original stars - the redoubtable duo of William Brown and Larry Yando - have reunited for a stimulating remount that will likely earn as many accolades as the original. And deservedly so.

Halberstam has a rock-solid foundation in Lees' shrewd, sharply written examination of powerful, single-minded men preoccupied with their legacy and history's perception of them. A pointed profile of hubris, ambition and self interest, "Nixon's Nixon" centers around two of the 20th century's most compelling and complex statesmen: Nixon, whose domestic malfeasance threatened his international triumphs, and Kissinger, the architect of many of those triumphs. The action unfolds late on the night of Aug. 7, 1974 in the White House's Lincoln Sitting Room, which designer Jack Magaw has augmented with a backdrop of presidential portraits, some of them reminders of the greatness to which Nixon aspired and failed to fully achieve.

Much of the credit for Writers' fastidious revival rests with Halberstam, whose taut production neatly balances the ridiculous (reflected in the duo's attempts to invent an international incident which Yando's Nixon can use to salvage his presidency) with the sublime, reflected in their somber recognition of their failures whose human cost is revealed by Brown's Kissinger.

But Halberstam has a couple of aces in the rangy, cagey Yando - nominated for a Joseph Jefferson Award for his performance as Nixon in the 2000 production - and the masterfully restrained Brown, who won the Jeff award for his turn as Kissinger. Their acting is impeccable. You'd be hard pressed to find a pair of actors as well matched as Yando and Brown, whose performances as the disgraced president and his secretary of state are not so much strict impersonations as artfully executed psychological profiles of the flawed men behind the political masks.

The play opens with the anguished Nixon facing impeachment stemming from his involvement in the Watergate cover-up. On the eve of his resignation, however, he has second thoughts about relinquishing the power for which he has fought so hard. Convinced that the American public loves underdogs and scrappers, he scrambles to stay in office, concocting outrageous schemes to that end. Enter Kissinger, whose goals are twofold: get the president to resign for the country's good and get him to convince his successor Gerald Ford to retain Kissinger as secretary of state - ostensibly to ensure the advancement of the Nixon-Kissinger foreign-policy agenda - but also to ensure Kissinger's own place in history. Fueled by alcohol, the two men spend the evening recreating Nixon's memorable exchanges with Leonid Brezhnev, Mao Ze-dong, John Kennedy and Gold Meir as the soon-to-be-ex president recalls the high and low points of his checkered career, with self-awareness always just beyond his reach.

The showier role belongs to Yando, he of the stooped shoulders and furrowed brow, who elicits both sympathy and disdain as the man who became a caricature. Mercurial, tenacious, with "a subtle but distinct tinge of madness," his performance is like an arrow to the bull's-eye: on target and sharply honed. The nicely ambivalent Brown is equally impressive as a man whose disapproval of his boss is tempered by his ambition and a well-developed sense of self-preservation.

Yando, Brown and Halberstam have set the bar high for a second time. Their "Nixon," not unlike the man himself, remains a singular event that I suspect may be rather difficult to surpass.

"Nixon's Nixon"

Rating: Four stars

Location: Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe

Times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 19, also 2 p.m. Sept. 10 and Oct. 1

Running time: About 1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: $60-$75

Parking: Street parking available

Box office: (847) 242-6000 or

Rating: For adults