Monday, June 8, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Douglas McGrath's Checkers at Studio Theatre Long Island by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg

This review of Douglas McGrath's Checkers at Studio Theatre Long Island was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg 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. 

Today I saw a delightful production of Checkers produced by the Studio Theatre at 141 South Wellwood Avenue, Lindenhurst, New York. It is conveniently located near the Long Island Railroad Station and the Southern State Parkway. The only physical drawback was climbing the steps to the second floor of the building. The lounge was extremely comfortable with chairs and tables. It was nicely decorated. There were free treats on one table and complimentary coffee. Other beverages were reasonably priced. The bathroom was a delight to use and it was so inviting, I felt as if I was at home. The staff was friendly and welcoming.

On stage, a television screen was effectively used to announce scene changes (instead of the complexity of sound effects and light arrays used in the original Vineyard Theatre production) thanks to the imaginative staging of Erick Creegan and Liz Grudzinski. In the original Off-Broadway production that I saw in 2012, Richard Nixon and Murray Chotiner were the foci of an ellipse of which everybody revolved around. This time, Pat Nixon was the center of the universe or the glue that held everything together. This is her show. Pat Nixon, perfectly personified by Carolyn Popadin, is the one that urges her husband to show his best side and be bigger than his critics instead of giving into his darkest and basest instincts. Nixon gives the speech of his life which saves them all. The pinnacle of the speech is about a dog named Checkers, who is not used as a weepy, sentimental motif but as the center of the middle class life style that the Nixon's share with their children. 

While the "General" - Ike - was portrayed by an actor in the Off-Broadway stage production, a recorded voice is used here to portray the general as an empty suit devoid of principle. He is too ready to throw Nixon under the bus in order to get elected. Outmaneuvered by Nixon, he has no choice but to say, "Nixon is my boy" when the Republican National Committee is flooded with wires and phone calls running 350 to 1 in favor of keeping Nixon on the ticket, topping what seemed to be an impossible 90% threshold set by Eisenhower. 

We see how equally shallow and dowdy Mamie Doud Eisenhower, well-portrayed by Lorrie DePelligrini, is herself, pun intended. Having never really struggled in life, she is unable to empathize with another woman seeking to improve herself, refusing to recommend a clothing designer to Pat Nixon and suggesting that she buy off the rack. Mamie was a housewife who could not cook; Ike did the cooking. Pat Nixon, on the other hand, had been a nurse and then a school teacher, who viewed herself as a partner in her husband's career.  

We feel like strangling Herb Brownell brought to villainous life by W. Gordon Innes. Sherman Adams, acted by Ralph Carideo, can only play a pale reflection of a political operative ready to throw anybody under the bus that Innes portrays so effectively. Murray Chotiner, acted by David Rifkind, plays a credible advisor to Nixon and political operative in his own right. He was there for Nixon in 1952 and comes back in 1966 to get Nixon to run for President again. 

Scott Earle is able to bring to life the Richard Nixon that is not yet the Richard Nixon we come to know in later years but is on the way to evolving into the final, dysfunctional version. We see a Nixon capable of dreaming big dreams but unable to forget and forgive the slights that life has dealt him. These destructive qualities will eventually overwhelm the better angels of his nature.

Giving her husband advice on how to handle the alleged scandal of a secret fund was in a way Pat Nixon's last hurrah before losing her identity as an individual in her own right. During the ordeal, she is beaten down by the political system to conform to what is thought best for her husband's political campaign and political career. Richard Nixon (you don't really say "Dick" to his face) has learned all the wrong lessons. Although the use of the high road approach worked in dealing with the "slush fund" scandal, Nixon decides to embrace the bare-knuckled principles of his enemies in order to win at all costs. We see the beginning of alcoholism for both the Nixons. In the end, the Nixons win the battle on his reputation but lose the war on living a life that is positive for them and for others. Nixon ends up placing his desire for a continuing political career as his top priority, even over the happiness of his wife, just as Ike always told Mamie that for him, the Army would always come first.

In this well-written play, you see both good and evil within people. It is not all black and white. Each major character is far more complex as people are in real life. In the end, we see a tragedy in the making. Douglas McGrath has written one hell of a play that will stand the test of time because it shows how good people are transformed into S.O.B.s to survive in the American political jungle.

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