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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Readers too young to have experienced the Watergate scandal first-hand may not realize how much it resembled a modern Greek tragedy veering towards keystone cop comedy with its bizarre dramatis personae whose actions one would be more likely to associate with a banana republic than the world's foremost democracy: burglaries, bribes and cover-ups, not to mention assaults and possible murders. To help bring the tempest in the political teapot to a boil there was the opinionated Mitchell, the crazy lady who turned out not to be so crazy and prompted psychologist Brendan Maher to coin the term "Martha Mitchell Effect" for a belief mistakenly diagnosed as a delusion.
This isn't the first ever theatrical take on the late Mrs. Mitchell. Just a couple of years ago Thomas Doran's This is Martha Speaking approached the story through three characters (Martha, husband John and Richard Nixon). It premiered in Martha's home town of Pine Bluff, Arkansa. Dirty Tricks, features just one performer (Am I the only one who'd like to see the flood of solo plays stemmed?). It can't be faulted for not being timely. In case you need specifics, the next presidential election is just weeks away and legal teams are preparing to avoid a replay of the disastrous Florida vote four years ago. The Nixon resignation, which was hastened by having "the mouth of the South" blow the lid off the infamous election-stealing Watergate caper, is marking its thirtieth anniversary. President Bush has sidelined the widely respected Helen Thomas so that she no longer gets to ask the first question at press conferences or the concluding "Thank you, Mr. President." And, of course, there's the other Martha pacing her cell as Ivey's Martha paces her New York apartment.
Judith Ivey wraps her formidable acting skills around the role that has her on stage, and occasionally in the aisles, for the play's full ninety minutes. Thanks to a handy hair piece by wig wizard Paul Huntley to elevate her already mountain-high upsweep and Joseph G. Aulisi's clever use of a few scarves and capelets to transform a basic pink slip and robe into a wardrobe, Ms. Ivey can change her appearance right before our eyes.
This is a big, juicy role and the Texas-born Ivey gives it the right syrupy accent. She captures the canniness and gumption beneath the bigoted dumb blonde surface and wrings every possible drop of humor from John Jeter's first playwriting effort -- essentially structured as a day with a desperate and manic Martha, plus flashbacks to round out a patchwork of widely available facts. That day happens to be August 8, 1974 -- the day Nixon resigned.
Jeter's script ties the monologues to Martha's preparation for an interview with Mike Wallace and director Margaret Whitton has mounted it with enough stage business to create a theatrical context and strong sense of time and place. To compensate for the dirth of players, Neil Patel's handsomely shabby New York apartment is filled with lots of illustrative props. These include three phones which seem to miraculously reach the people at the other end without dialing a number and a television set at the foot of Martha's bed which allows the bedroom walls to periodically spring to life with Sage Marie Carter's video clips of the events and people who were part of this political travesty. Audience members who lived through the Nixon era will enjoy spotting long gone but then familiar faces -- reporters like Howard K. Smith as well as the gang of scoundrels whose antics were almost too wild to be believed. The videos are hardly likely to provide younger audience members with sufficient historic enlightenment.
Ms. Ivey's performance has its moving as well as funny moments, though there are times when the monologues are more exhausting than exhilarating and the play never really rises above carricature. In an interview with Blade Jeeter stated that he felt Mitchell was a character with great appeal to gay men -- "Not quite Joan Crawford kind of camp, but she had the big drag queen hair and a very quick wit," He may have something there. Without Ivey to add her own dash of drag appeal to the not to be silenced Martha, future productions of Dirty Tricks might well work best with a guy playing this explosive blonde bombshell.
Whoever plays her, Jeter is clearly convinced she deserves star rather than footnote in history billing. In the cautionary closing he's written for her the crazy lady sounds alarmingly sensible: "It is your duty to question authority, as sovereign as it maybe. That's how this country came to be in the first place. . .America can not afford to turn their cheek from the 'goings-on' over at the White House. Because my darling, with your cheek turned, you'll never see what's going on behind your back."
Note: See the end of the production notes below for some facts about Martha Mitchell and the Watergate scandal. There's lots more available on the web.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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