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'American Iliad': A Murky Nixonian Odyssey

Theater Review

May 30, 2001|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

Nixon. JFK. Marilyn Monroe. J. Edgar Hoover. Some of the most examined figures of the previous century are conjured up again in Donald Freed's "American Iliad" at the Victory Theatre. But Freed hasn't figured out how to say anything new about them.

Freed is best known for "Secret Honor," the Nixon monologue he co-wrote with Arnold M. Stone. The premise of "American Iliad" is similar to that of "Secret Honor"--an over-the-hill Nixon is trying to redeem his reputation.

According to the program, the new play takes place in Nixon's mind during the last three or four minutes of his life--and certainly we see plenty of fantasies that could conceivably have passed through a dying Nixon's brain. However, we enter those fantasies from a fictional vantage point that appears to exist outside the ex-president's mind, on a New Jersey beach on July 4, 2000. The 90-year-old Nixon is shepherded by a young man who periodically briefs unseen colleagues on Nixon's behavior via telephone. Nixon has decided to write his last book in order to pay off his legal debts.

The real Nixon died in New York in 1994, at age 81. He would have been 90 in 2003. But Freed isn't interested in literal facts.

His Nixon recalls attending, as a boy, a Chautauqua gathering on July 4, 1900--13 years before the real Nixon was born. Several Chautauqua sequences are used as a symbol of that era's myopic optimism and self-confidence, in contrast to the disasters that afflicted the rest of the century.

This Nixon is convinced that a critical turning point was the assassination of JFK--and that people blame him for the murder. So he decides to visit JFK, whose aged ghost now lives in sybaritic luxury on a Greek island. Nixon hopes JFK can help him clear his name.

The location of JFK's afterlife may derive from a desire to help justify the title "American Iliad." Also, JFK talks of his generation's participation in World War II as an American Iliad and says his premature death spared him from much of the later American Iliad. This Kennedy is 10 years younger than Nixon (the real one was only four years younger).

Nixon's attempt to absolve himself is sidetracked into subsidiary fantasies involving Monroe, Hoover and Clyde Tolson, Pat Nixon and, in the Chautauqua sequences, Horatio Alger and Black Elk. Finally, JFK persuades Nixon--for reasons that remain murky--to visit hell, which turns out to be a bleak vision of a gutted Harlem. Here Nixon encounters three African American stereotypes--a revolutionary, Uncle Tom and a street singer--before going through an unconvincing catharsis that enables him to die on a note of putative optimism.

A mess? You bet. Freed hasn't translated his fascination for Nixon and JFK into a coherent vision. He continues thrashing ideas and images around his brain and has let them escape onto a stage without succeeding in clarifying what it is that he wants to say. The play is a frustrating stew of heavy-handed, obvious symbolism mixed with none-too-obvious, half-formed theses.

The narrative engine is misplaced. Nixon's soiled reputation had nothing to do with any supposed complicity in Kennedy's death. Perhaps Freed simply wants to use Nixon's concerns about this subject to illustrate the man's paranoia, but the play isn't helped by the apparent pointlessness of its skeletal story.

Al Rossi's caricature of Nixon has its moments. David Clennon tackles JFK with somewhat less persuasive results. Neither man looks old enough, perhaps because they also have to double as youthful crusaders in the Chautauqua scenes. The funniest sequence is a series of quick domestic exchanges between Hoover (Travis Michael Holder) and Tolson (Cheyenne Wilbur) while a frustrated Nixon seethes. Diana Costa is up to the unusual task of portraying both Marilyn Monroe and Pat Nixon, though her scenes usually go nowhere. Considering all the flights of fancy, Maria Gobetti's staging is fairly austere (except for excessive strobe lights). But if Freed is contemplating further rewrites, perhaps that's just as well.

*

* "American Iliad," Victory Theatre, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 6:30 p.m. Ends July 15. $22-$24. (818) 841-5421. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

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