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Theater Review : 'Secret Honor': Nixonian Credibility Gap

August 12, 1994|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although Richard M. Nixon died more than three months ago, the Nixon Library still sells a T-shirt that proclaims "Nixon in '96--Tan, Rested and Ready!," according to a Times report earlier this week.

Yet judging from the revival of "Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon," which opened at the Fountain Theatre on the 20th anniversary of Nixon's resignation, this classic American character will never rest.

He's in torment during most of this fictional monologue, written by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone and performed by the brilliant Philip Baker Hall, who created the role in 1983 at Los Angeles Actors' Theatre and performed Robert Altman's filmed version a year later.

This Nixon's even considering shooting himself. The former president loads and unloads a gun--twice.

He's recording a plea to some unknown judge. He speaks usually in the first person, but occasionally in the third, referring to his "client." He repeatedly interrupts his pleading with reminiscences of his checkered career. Sometimes sardonic--he laughs at some of his own mistakes--but more often bitter, he attempts to justify himself as the authentic voice of the average American. Yet every few minutes he also snickers at the common folk.

The first half is an absorbing excursion into the man's soul. Hall is a wonder even before he speaks, shuffling around the former president's New Jersey office, trying to set up his recalcitrant tape recorder. Although Hall never resorts to a cliched impersonation, his suggestion of Nixon's physiognomy is frequently uncanny, especially in profile. And he makes Nixon's memories of his family genuinely moving.

Unfortunately, the script eventually gets around to its major theme--that Nixon was just a pawn for the Bohemian Grove crowd and their Jewish Mafia enforcers, and that he gallantly engineered his own disgrace so as to avert a fascist takeover of the government. It's not clear if this is supposed to be Nixon's self-deluding fantasy or if we're supposed to believe him, but the latter looks likely.

The substantiated details of the real Nixon's life and personality are so rich that such embellishments ought to be unnecessary. We leave wondering whether the play's credibility gap is as severe as Nixon's once was. Nowhere in the program notes is the fictional nature of the play emphasized--it is referred to as "an eerie re-creation" in the producer's introduction.

The evening also is too long--almost two hours, about 25 minutes longer than the video. Director Mitchell Ryan doesn't sustain the dramatic momentum. In an interview, co-author Freed said he wants to present his new Pat Nixon monologue on a double bill with "Secret Honor." Let's hope he finds an editor first.

* "Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon," Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., except this Saturday, 3 p.m. Ends Aug. 27. $15-$17.50. (213) 663-1525. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

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