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WEEKEND REVIEWS / Theater Review

The Nixon-Douglas Race, Sans Fire

November 09, 1998|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 1950 campaign for the U.S. Senate in California was a barnburner. Facing each other were future President Richard Nixon and glamorous Broadway-star-turned-Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas. Offstage hovered the Korean War, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare.

It sounds like the makings of a great play. Too bad that Keith Reddin's "But Not for Me," premiering at South Coast Repertory, diligently drains most of the drama out of this once-blistering confrontation.

The title is a clue to what went wrong. Although it's a lyric from a popular song, it doesn't suggest much by itself, and it doesn't even hint at a bitter contest. By contrast, the title of Greg Mitchell's nonfiction book on the same subject, published earlier this year, used the pejorative nicknames flung at the two candidates: "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady."

Unfortunately, Reddin's title is all too fitting, in that the structure of the play pushes conflict into the background. In the first act, we see Nixon and his aide Roy Day in a room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, preparing for a surprise appearance onstage with his opponent at Beverly Hills High School. In the second act, set a week later on election night, Douglas and her husband, the actor Melvyn Douglas, await the returns, also in a room at the same hotel.

In other words, Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas are never onstage together. Don't miss the curtain call, when at least the two actors playing the roles get to meet each other.

It's almost as if Reddin were building his play around the device of seeing different pairs of people interacting at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Memo to Reddin: Neil Simon already did this, in "California Suite."

Perhaps Reddin didn't want to violate the historical fact that Douglas avoided debating fellow House member Nixon head to head. However, Nixon did in fact show up for that surprise attack on Douglas at the high school, which is described in the second act of Reddin's play, and which sounds much more exciting than the situations that are in the play. Furthermore, Reddin didn't mind violating the historical fact (as reported in Mitchell's book) that Douglas spent election night at her headquarters in downtown L.A., not in Beverly Hills, and that she projected a "supernatural dignity," in contrast to the explosive temper that's on display here.

One character straddles both acts of Reddin's play: a bellhop, Stan, who brings room service to both pairs of campaigners and begins talking with them, only to end up expressing his disgust with both candidates. Nixon and his aide rile Stan by mentioning how Helen Gahagan's husband changed his name from Hesselberg to Douglas, as if he had something to hide--which is understandably interpreted as an anti-Semitic innuendo by the bellhop, who announces dramatically that he's Jewish. Later, after the Democratic candidate concludes that she has lost, she directs some of her bitter, drunken cynicism at innocent bystander Stan, who had voted for her but now retorts that she's no better than Nixon.

Presumably, Stan represents the masses who are turned off by all politicians, but his matching denunciations are too schematic and violate the realistic tone Reddin has set.

The play could have used a less realistic, more imaginative tone from the beginning, which would have given Reddin greater flexibility for mixing in other voices and issues. Nixon manager Murray Chotiner, for example, is mentioned but not seen, though his flamboyance and his Jewishness might have made him a more telling character than the predictable Day. We hear about John Kennedy's support of Nixon and Ronald Reagan's wavering support of both candidates; an inventive stylist might have found ways of introducing such characters into the play.

As it is, the play serves primarily as a vehicle for actors' portraits of three famous people, and, under David Emmes' direction, these performances are temporarily engaging. Greg Stuhr's resemblance to the young Nixon is remarkable. At least for those of us who never actually saw Helen Gahagan Douglas (she made only one movie), Linda Gehringer is more reminiscent of Lauren Bacall, but it's still a stylish job. Dan Kern's Melvyn Douglas is suitably debonair, though Melvyn doesn't do much in the play beyond serving as his wife's sounding board. In the role of Roy, who's a hardball salesman trying to tempt Nixon into going for the jugular, Richard Doyle's performance is less assured than usual.

* "But Not for Me," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Dec. 6. $26-$43. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Richard Doyle: Roy

Greg Stuhr: Dick

David Denman: Stan

Linda Gehringer: Helen

Dan Kern: Melvyn

Written by Keith Reddin. Directed by David Emmes. Set by Thomas Buderwitz. Costumes by Alex Jaeger. Lighting by Doc Ballard. Wigs by Carol F. Doran. Stage manager Jamie A. Tucker.

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