Stu Mullenberg

Nixon's Nixon
CoHo Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh, Through Nov 26, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, $19-22

With leaks springing in the roof of Bush's White House faster than Karl Rove can patch them up, it's fascinating to imagine the conversations taking place behind White House doors. CoHo Theater's neatly timed Nixon's Nixon speculates similarly about another beleaguered administration, envisioning the conversation between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger the night before Nixon's resignation.

In playwright Russell Lees' vision, Nixon agonizes over whether or not to resign, finding the power and glory of his position almost impossible to relinquish. Kissinger, torn between waning loyalty to Nixon and a concern for his own political future, half-heartedly comforts Nixon while furtively trying to secure a position in the next administration. The script is nuanced and insightful, particularly in describing the death grip power can gain on the ego. The set is a minimally decorated sitting room; lighting and sound are equally subtle (my only complaint: I'm pretty sure that the furniture in the White House matches). With 90 minutes of intermissionless dialogue, the production hinges on one thing and one thing only: the acting.

As Henry Kissinger, Gary Brickner-Shultz's performance is taut with the juxtaposition of a genial, diplomatic exterior and a cold, calculating mind that sees bombings and assassinations as mere means to a political end. He's a charming old man with a quaint accent—until he begins rattling off Vietnamese and Chilean death tolls without remorse.

Nixon, though, is the linchpin of the production, and in a performance that seems calculated to show a different side of Nixon, Duffy Epstein overshoots and misses Nixon entirely. Epstein's unwillingness to simply do a Nixon impression is understandable, particularly given the script's thematic emphasis on the performance aspect of politics. But while forgoing the glower is one thing, a complete reinvention of the character is another thing altogether. Epstein's Nixon seems histrionic and weak, rather than, as script and historical circumstance require, a strong man coming unhinged as his reputation and political legacy collapse. The resulting figure is impossible to reconcile with Nixon's weighty persona, and too insubstantial, unfortunately, to carry the production.