Ruby Washington/The New York Times.
“Checkers,” a new play at the Vineyard Theater, stars Anthony LaPaglia and Kathryn Erbe as Richard and Pat Nixon.
By MARK FEENEY
Published: November 1, 2012/New York Times
ON Sept. 23, 1952, Richard M. Nixon delivered what would become known as the “Checkers” speech. In it Nixon, then the Republican vice-presidential candidate, addressed news reports about a fund to pay for his political expenses. As intended, the 30-minute broadcast kept him on the ticket. As not intended (or was it?), the speech transformed the conduct of American politics, revealing how powerfully television can persuade and shattering the barrier between public and private in public life. It also gave Douglas McGrath the inspiration for his new play, “Checkers,” which runs through Dec. 2 at the Vineyard Theater, with Anthony LaPaglia as Nixon and Kathryn Erbe as his wife, Pat.
The drama begins and ends in 1966, with the Nixons in their New York apartment, discussing whether or not he’ll run for president in 1968. In between come scenes from the political firestorm that culminated in the Checkers speech — and the emotional damage it did to both Nixons. The Checkers name came from Nixon’s mention in the speech of a cocker spaniel that was sent as a gift to his daughters.
Nixon, Mr. McGrath said over a meal last month at the Union Square Cafe, is “one of the few people I know who can be hateful and pitiable at the same time, which is kind of maddening.” He laughed. “We like a cleaner feeling. You just want to hate someone, or pity him, but not both. It’s that essentially human quality of Nixon’s that everyone connects with in some way: that fear, that social insecurity, that inability to feel loved or popular.”
It’s hard to imagine someone less Nixonian than Mr. McGrath, 54. Effervescent and boyish, he has a boulevardier’s bounce and a performer’s panache. He’s also extremely droll, a word rarely used in proximity to the term “Nixonian.” When a diner asked a waiter about “speck” on the menu (it’s a kind of dried ham), Mr. McGrath nodded. “Oh, I’m very familiar with that. My whole life is on spec.”
Earlier, during a break in rehearsal at the Vineyard, an actor in costume took out his smartphone. An onlooker remarked on the incongruity. “It’s an ikePhone,” Mr. McGrath said.
“A gentleman playwright from another era” is how Ms. Erbe described him in a telephone interview. “He really is like you’d imagine someone from the Algonquin Round Table.” (In a curious twist Ms. Erbe used to be married to Terry Kinney, the play’s director. “She’s someone who came to mind immediately,” Mr. Kinney said in a telephone interview. Mr. McGrath spoke with admiration of how smoothly the couple has worked together on the play.)
Mr. McGrath grew up in Midland, Texas. His parents, transplants from the East, were conservative Republicans. “I can remember my sister and me volunteering for Nixon,” Mr. McGrath said. “My parents liked him. I liked my parents. So I figured he was good.”
There’s another Nixon-McGrath connection. A great-aunt who lived at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street was selling her apartment when the Nixons were moving to New York for the second time, in the late 1970s. Pat came by to look at it. A week later an inscribed copy of “RN,” Richard Nixon’s memoirs, arrived. “Aunt Allie was very happy about that,” Mr. McGrath said. “Very happy.”
Mr. McGrath eventually came East, to go to Choate. Later, at Princeton, he got his playwriting start, with the Triangle Club’s famous theatricals. A stint as a staff writer at “Saturday Night Live” was followed by a variety of writing credits for stage, television and film. Among them was a collaboration with Woody Allen on “Bullets Over Broadway,” which earned an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. Mr. McGrath directed his first feature film, “Emma,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow, in 1996. Four others have followed. The most recent was last year’s “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” starring Sarah Jessica Parker. He’s also acted.
Originally Mr. McGrath thought of Nixon as a possible television subject. “Since cable got the power and freedom it has, you can explore someone in a way you couldn’t in the old days” of network television, “when Mannix was Mannix was Mannix," he said. “I thought maybe that Nixon would be an interesting series.”
So how did “Checkers” end up Off Broadway instead of on HBO or Showtime? “As I studied the speech, it kind of had a perfect shape,” Mr. McGrath said. “It has a dramatic beginning. He’s under attack. Things go wrong. He resolves it successfully. Yet from a dramatic point of view it has this beautiful twist.” He added, “It allowed him to go forward in politics, but the whole event made her realize she hated politics.”
While “Checkers” certainly works as a title, the play might just as accurately be called “Scenes from a Marriage” or “Nixon/Nixon” — the other Nixon being Pat.
Anthony LaPaglia “and I were talking the other day,” Mr. McGrath recalled, “and he said, ‘Do you think Nixon loved Pat more than politics or politics more than Pat?’ We know about a lot of presidents who didn’t love their wives, who had arrangements or whatever. I think he genuinely loved Pat. But in the end I think he did love politics more than Pat, because it fed some need of his that she couldn’t feed.”
Ms. Erbe praised the playwright’s rendering of her character. “Doug really empathizes with her and has written her so beautifully,” she said. “I don’t want to feel I let her down.”
Mr. McGrath expressed a similar protectiveness. “She has a delicacy of feeling I associate with” Tennessee Williams, “though some of those women can be quite fantastical. Sadly, she wasn’t out of touch with reality. She was very in touch with reality, which was difficult for her.
“At the end of the play she says, ‘I can’t stand it if you win or if you lose.’ That’s what makes their story a tragedy — not just a drama but a tragedy. There’s no way for them to be happy at a certain point. There’s no way, because neither can change.”
Did that make it hard for Mr. McGrath to write about Pat Nixon? “No, I actually loved writing about her,” he said. “In some ways that’s what I loved writing about most because I tried to imagine what if I were Nixon’s wife. Now there’s a title, ‘What If I Were Nixon’s Wife.’ Talk about waking up from a dream in a cold sweat.”