Review By Marilyn Lester . . .
The great love of the American public for conspiracy theories and trial dramas has produced a trove of books, films and stage plays, now joined by George Bugatti’s Trial on the Potomac––The Impeachment of Richard Nixon. In it, an alternative history of the Watergate Scandal of the Richard Nixon presidency is put forth with the tag line, “What If?”
What if, indeed. What if Nixon had not resigned but instead stood for an impeachment trial? We’re promised “a tale of secret meetings, secret memos, and secret collusion that will shock America.” Far from shock, parsing this 50-year-old slice of American history, is an exercise whose reach exceeds its grasp. The question is, what ultimate point does Trial on the Potomac wish to make? Your guess is as good as mine.
The Watergate scandal dominated the news from 1972 to Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Revealed was an intricate and wide-ranging series of events stemming from the Nixon administration’s attempts to cover up its involvement in the June 17, 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Geoff Shepard, who wrote the source material for the play, was a White House Fellow at the time. Lately, his mission has been to write books to prove that Nixon was done wrong.
Trial on the Potomac represents a missed opportunity to create an alternate reality without an agenda––to have fun exploring the “what if?” rather than try to suddenly exploit outdated and irrelevant outrage. Nor does the ending of the play answer the question. No spoilers here, but it’s a disappointing cop-out.
An ensemble cast of 14 tries mightily to prove the point, bogged down with an overladen script trying to make sense of too much information. Headliner Rich Little, now 82, plays the then 61-year-old Nixon convincingly. Noted also as a comedian and phenomenal impressionist, Little nailed the Nixon persona without descending into parody, both in movement and vocal intimation. His major contribution to the play comes in climactic final scenes. Leading up to that is a series of shotgunned short scenes riddled with unnecessary exposition, mainly delivered by the Shephard character. Nick Mauldin, playing the role, often seemed like a bewildered deer in the headlights. Kelsey Lea Jones as TV icon, Diane Sawyer, was tasked with a character that seemed stuck into the script just to assure a female presence.
On the plus side, Troy Sill made much of his role as lead Nixon attorney, James St. Clair, playing the character with refreshing authenticity. Also commendable was Tom Gregory as lead prosecutor, Peter Rodino. The actor with the most thankless job was Richard Wingert as Senator Ted Kennedy. Kennedy, according to Trial on the Potomac, was an instigator of the conspiracy within a conspiracy––but he spends the majority of the play seated in the audience, as a parade of Watergate characters testify. Among them is Judge John Sirica (Victor Colicchio) as a Mafia Don and Gordon Liddy (John Ramaine) as a refugee from “The Sopranos.” These are directorial choices that did not benefit an already shaky property. Director Josh Iacovelli would have done well to study political action and courtroom dramas that work successfully. All the Way, an exciting presidential play about Lyndon B Johnson’s efforts to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1974 comes first to mind. It’s a master class in tight, focused action, delivered with clarity, relevance and excitement.
Other credits for Trial on the Potomac––The Impeachment of Richard Nixon are set design by Josh Iacovelli, lighting design by John Lant, sound design by Ray Shilke and costume design by Jennie West. Running time is 90 minutes without an intermission.
Trial on the Potomac––The Impeachment of Richard Nixon opened on August 6 and plays through September 5 at Theatre At St Clements, 423 W 46th Street, New York City, NY. Tickets at https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Trial-on-the-Potomac-The-Impeachment-of-Richard-Nixon/Ticket More Info: www.trialonthepotomac.com
Photos: Steve Bergman