There is an early clue that Douglas McGrath’s ungainly Nixon retrodrama, Checkers, will not be able to fit its stride to the stage. Some flaws take a while to uncover: We need time to lose interest in Anthony LaPaglia’s Tricky Dick impression, time to mourn Kathryn Erbe’s two-dimensional Patricia. But we sense things have gone awry, almost at once, in the first transition. Despite employing tricks like three roll-away beds and a zippy desk on wheels, Neil Patel’s set can’t possibly cover a hectic script that spends only a few minutes each on campaign speeches, conversations with political operatives and marital arguments.
To keep up, video designer Darrel Maloney graffitis in whatever details are required with projections that underline the hastily drawn nature of the text itself. Already in that first scene change, a clever production staff must paper over the playwright’s cracks: McGrath has written films but never plays, and his whistle-stop dramaturgy betrays a blithe ignorance of theatrical compression.
We see much but learn little. Each scene delivers only one scrap of knowledge (like “Pat objects to Dick’s political career”) or a political groaner (“What’s the definition of a pussy? Someone who’s afraid of a Democrat”). When we finally fetch up at a television studio for the titular speech, we have been perfunctorily walked through Nixon’s reasons for going on TV and divulging his finances. (Newspapers have made hay of his “secret fund,” threatening his spot on Eisenhower’s ticket.) Certainly, the modern resonances abound—party infighting, a candidate’s candor about income. But not a whole season of political mishegas, director Terry Kinney or a stalwart supporting cast can create dramatic density where none exists.—Helen Shaw