This review of Douglas McGrath's Checkers at Studio Theatre Long Island was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by Douglas McGrath
Directed by David Dubin
Richard Nixon played by Scott Earle
Pat Nixon played by Carolyn Popadin
Studio Theatre Long Island
141 South Wellwood Avenue
Lindenhurst, New York
Reviewed 6/7/15 at 2:30 p.m.
On September 23, 1952, Vice-Presidential candidate, California Senator Richard M. Nixon, went on television for one-half hour to defend himself against charges he maintained a secret "slush fund" to pay himself a "second salary" and that said fund was immoral and led to conflicts of interest. In what would become known as the "Checkers" speech, Senator Nixon argued that not a dime of the money in that fund was ever used for personal or family expenses (pointing out that his wife doesn't own a mink coat but only a respectable Republican cloth coat), and that the money was only used for political expenses, which he thought improper to charge to the taxpayers as part of his official duties as an officeholder. This speech is the centerpiece of a relatively new play by Douglas McGrath, that opened at the Vineyard Theatre in New York City on October 31, 2012 closing on December 2, 2012.
The play Checkers begins and ends in 1966 in Nixon's Manhattan apartment as he is considering whether to run for President in 1968. He already lost the Presidency in 1960 and the California gubernatorial election in 1962. Pat, his wife, is against his running and he realizes that if he runs and loses a third time, his political career will be finished. On the other hand, he views Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller and George W. Romney as weak opponents who will not be able to beat LBJ and he also sees an opportunity to further develop a Southern Strategy that might enable him to win the electoral votes in Southern States. Another negative weighing on his mind is the whole "slush fund" affair of 1952, which he recalls as "one of the blackest moments of my life." He remembers how the Republican establishment left him out to dry and tried to pressure him into offering his resignation, which he refused to do. He also fears the press is against him and will never give him the benefit of the doubt. As Nixon says in the play, "If I took Christ off the cross, the New York Times would say I did it for the lumber."
Douglas McGrath's Nixon is a typical politico willing to do anything necessary to win, who had no problem smearing Helen Gahagan Douglas, his opponent in the California Senate race, by suggesting she was "pink right down to her underwear," or by saying his wife's birthday was on St. Patrick's Day when it was, in fact, a day either. On the other hand, there is a human quality to Nixon, who feels he is looked down upon by the social elite (he is convinced the Rockefeller's who live in his building take note of the fact that he lives on a lower floor), and rejected by the gentleman of the G.O.P., who object to his blunt style of campaigning. How ironic it was then when General Eisenhower asked Nixon to run with him as the Vice-Presidential candidate in 1952. Ike's advisors perceived Eisenhower's role in the campaign as being "the General standing in the sunlight on a hilltop" while they wanted Nixon "to be the soldier who would sling the mud and shit." But Nixon understood that Eisenhower's people didn't really like him so it was no surprise when they didn't come to his immediate defense when the slush fund issue came up. Pat Nixon, traumatized by how much of their personal life and finances needed to be made public during the "slush fund" scandal, came to abhor politics and while she agreed to "stand by" her man in 1968, she says she would not be "with him." Her significant difficulty handling the press attacks on her and her husband portended her ultimate addiction to tranquilizers and alcohol and the increasingly estranged relationship she had with her husband.
Near the end of Nixon's televised "slush fund" defense speech, he said, "One other thing I probably should tell you because if I don't they'll probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift, after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip, we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate that he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers. And as you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it." Henceforth, the speech became known as the "Checkers" speech because the reaction of many in the television audience of 60 million viewers was, "What kind of people would want to take away a little girl's dog!" Wires and phone calls ran 350 to 1 in Nixon's favor and Ike ultimately sent him a wire congratulating him on his performance and inviting him to meet him in West Virginia. With new found confidence, Nixon wired back that he was too busy on the campaign trail and that they'd meet up when they were both back in Washington, D.C.
This production of Checkers is a huge success because of the performances of Scott Earle as Richard Nixon, and Carolyn Popadin as Pat Nixon. Perfectly cast, both bring substance and depth to their roles enabling the audience to appreciate the challenges both characters face when they are attacked on a personal level. Richard Nixon tends to want to fight on to show his enemies he will not be easily defeated while Pat Nixon responds more emotionally and in the end, more tragically. The entire cast of this production is top-notch! David Rifkind appears as Murry Chotiner, Nixon's political advisor. W. Gordon Innes as Herb Brownell and Ralph Carideo as Sherman Adams put in fine performances as Ike's political advisors, and finally, although they have small roles, Akiva Wharton has an essential line as Joey, that brought me to tears, and Lorrie DePelligrini gives her unemotional and unsympathetic reactions to her husband in the role of Mamie Eisenhower. The "Checkers" speech transformed the conduct of American politics by revealing how powerfully television can persuade the public on any given issue. This well-written and fast moving play reflects the events leading up to the speech and what occured in its immediate aftermath. It is a must see!
Douglas McGrath's Checkers will continue to play at Studio Theatre Long Island through June 21, 2015. Tickets cost $25.00 and there is reserved seating. You can buy your tickets at http://www.studiotheatreli.com/ or by calling 631-226-8400. There was free coffee and cake available before the show I saw on a Sunday at 2:30 p.m. and there is a lovely lounge area available for you to sit in prior to the house opening. This was my first time seeing a show at Studio Theatre Long Island and I highly recommend you catch one of their high-quality productions soon. I will certainly be back!