We're so used to seeing the 37th president as a wily paranoiac (Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon) or a poison-hearted genius (Anthony Hopkins in Nixon) that it's nothing short of a shock to meet the version of Richard Nixon played by Anthony LaPaglia in Checkers, the new Off Broadway play by Douglas McGrath. The slouch and bulldog voice are familiar, but the personality isn't; he's a charismatic speaker, a soul-searching politician, and a doting husband.
The play, directed by Steppenwolf co-founder Terry Kinney, follows Nixon through the defining early battle of his career, when rumors of a ''secret fund'' in 1952 turned the Republican vice presidential nominee into a liability for his running mate, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Political machinations drive the action, but the drama's focus is the bond between Nixon and his wife, Pat (Kathryn Erbe), which is strained to its limit by his career. Pat wants her husband to succeed without sacrificing their pride, but Nixon's hold on his own ambition is slipping he can't stop himself from reaching higher. When he ultimately gives his famous "Checkers" speech on live TV so named after the family dog that Nixon references in a joking barb against his accusers Nixon lays his personal life bare in front of the viewing public with Pat sitting beside him, smiling gamely while their privacy slips away forever.
Both lead actors deliver confident, solid performances, pulling off the heavy task of turning historical caricatures into real and present people. But the play never quite hits its stride, moving from scene to scene with purpose but no momentum. LaPaglia's Nixon is almost too likable; we understand his charm and intelligence, but not the hunger that pushes him to ruin his marriage for the sake of his career. The climactic speech, abridged from its historical 30-minute version and delivered while Nixon is seated at a desk, also creates a serious challenge that McGrath doesn't quite master. He breaks up the text with internal monologues from Pat, Ike, and others, but the result is a series of stagy expository vignettes that feel out of synch with the play's understated tone. The more they try to shed light on Nixon's tragic decision, the more the real man, in all of his fascinating contradictions, seems to fade into the shadows. B–
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