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A CurtainUp LA Review
by Laura Hitchcock
If Richard Nixon and John Fitzgerald Kennedy were still alive, what would they be discussing on a Memorial Day week-end highlighted by the opening of Pearl Harbor and reeling from the defection of Senator Jim Jeffords from the Republican Party?
In Donald Freed's new tragi-comedy with music, American Iliad, the tottering but still bombastic two meet at Club Dead, on a tropical island in the last reaches of the dying Nixon's fantasy, and engage in a dialogue that ranges from their own personal obsessions out of the past to the present and beyond.
One of the most focused political satirists of our generation, Freed's previous plays include Secret Honor, a mad meditation on Nixon filmed by Robert Altman; Circe and Bravo,, inspired by Martha Mitchell, which starred Faye Dunaway and directed by Harold Pinter; and The General and the Archbishop, also directed by Maria Gobetti in its world premiere at the Victory Theatre and soon to be produced on the London stage and for film.
Al Rossi plays a befuddled Nixon, playing with incredible energy in at least three other roles that include Horatio Alger. David Clennon, best known to the mainstream audience as Miles in TV's Thirtysomething, is a hugely dynamic JFK in a wheelchair but natty in yachting cap and blazer, taking his libations from the breasts of his voluptuous nurse. He offers to share with Nixon who is equally horrified and terrified by the very idea. In an illuminating sidelight he calls his wife Buddy.
Nixon is obsessed with finding the smoking gun, both literally, as in who killed JFK, and metaphorically, as in how he, Nixon, took a wrong turn. Through his bleary eyes, we see other 20th-century highlights.
The production is bracketed with speeches and choruses from the optimistic liberal Chautauqua educational program of 1900 when the USA was identified with ice cream parlors and marching bands. With misplaced sentimentality, Nixon moons over aviator Charles Lindbergh whom he calls "our last hero" when New Jersey was still a "classy state."
We hear J. Edgar Hoover (Travis Michael Holder) and Tolson (Cheyenne Wilbur) singing a nasty and offensive "coon" song, an early racist label for African-Americans. Marilyn Monroe (Diana Costa) poignantly comes on to Dick, who tells her his name is Jack,. Revolutionary Streetman (Tai Bennett) takes Dick on a tour of Harlem, at Jack's suggestion (a cynical "mention my name, it may help!") . The Harlem sequence, which also features Aixa Clemente, somewhat offsets the Hoover & Tolson duet. Freed never hesitates to call a spade a spade ( no pun intended)
Dressing Hoover and Tolson in the Chatauqua straw hats as they soft shoe their way through a vaudevillian turn spewing racial and anti-Semitic bigotry, is an example of the visual double-entendres for which this playwright is famous. Another example is the literal "nursing" from JFK's nurse. Shocking, refreshing, funny and terrifying, all the characters serve Freed's vision exuberantly well.
Freed seems to underlining Nixon's upbringing and slant by having the same actor play Horatio Alger and the Chautauqua Leader. It softens and broadens the picture of Nixon as an All-American uptight depicted in "Sacred Honor.". This Nixon is a seeker, given, at the end of his life, the grace of inquiry.
The Chautauqua program, with its progressive optimistic liberal program, forecasts how glorious the world will be in the year 2000. Freed doesn't emphasize the glorious. Instead he contemplates even now a look at the reign of George the Second. We'll be moving into the 21st century with a writer who doesn't let anybody get away with anything and has a wonderful time doing it.
Maria Gobetti directs the excellent production with a sure instinct for the brashness and passion of the play. The well-performed musical numbers, awn from the 19th and 20th centuries, make plot points, bait-and-switch transitions and give a music hall flavor to the play, underlining a sly parallel to the present media-zation of politics.
Rossi has the difficult task of playing Nixon, Alger and the boosters of the past. On stage almost constantly in so many different roles, the indefatigable actor never misses a beat. He catches the familiar Nixon mannerisms and ages them to 90, presenting the Nixon we knew and one we don't. Perhaps that's why Alger and Rossi's other characters seem more arresting.
avid Clennon has a glorious time as the JFK we always knew was there. As in real life, his Jack is still more charismatic than Dick and has no trouble holding the stage. Standouts in the excellent supporting cast include Diana Costa who does a better Marilyn than any of the recent wannabes; Travis Michael Holder and Cheyenne Wilbur with their fine voices and snide characterizations; the fierce portrayal and powerful voice of Tai Bennett, and versatile Marco Pelaez, whose roles range from Black Elk to Nixon's exasperated aide Roberto.
Co-producer Tom Ormeny has designed a subtle scenic backdrop of stars and stripes and a lighting design that makes the most of the Victory Theatre's tiny space. Another coup for this fine theatre!