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As our rarer monsters are 

Praying with Nixon--once more, with feeling

The postcard for the play puts it succinctly: "A country divided by war. An embattled President caught in a web of lies." Surprisingly perhaps, the words don't refer to any current political state, but events that happened 30 years ago this week. Two days before his Aug. 9, 1974 resignation on television before a national audience, President Richard Nixon met in private with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. After the meeting, Kissinger would only say the two men knelt and prayed.

What really went on in that conversation has since been the subject of speculation by writers from Bob Woodward to Hunter Thompson. Two of the day's most accomplished--and idiosyncratic--strategic and political grandmasters enter a room to negotiate the endgame of at least one of their careers. Who starts the conversation? What do they say?

Most importantly, what are the possible moves left?

These are the subjects of Nixon's Nixon, Russell Lees' 1996 dark political comedy opening this week at Manbites Dog Theater. But as we spoke with director Joseph Megel, a certain sense of deja vu crept into the conversation...

Joseph Megel: When I read the script I said, "This is a very fun political satire, and it's a good time to do it."

Independent: Why?

Megel : It's a good time as we approach this election season and what we're up against. It's a good time to look back at people who are hungry for power and secretive and manipulative. I just think it's a good time to look back at that behavior and see how it feels in relation to the behaviors we're seeing today.

What are some of the similarities or parallels you're seeing?

If I look at the current administration and my own personal opinions about the way they wield power, it's the self-importance, the feeling of superiority, the feeling that they're above the fray, above the public's need to know, and that their morality is so high that they somehow don't have to act morally. That's what power gives them.

In this satire we can see how someone can self-justify their own actions as a way of creating their end goals. Seeing how he and Kissinger believe they can wield power and think they're above accountability is pretty phenomenal. I think that's what this administration does. And they're not to be questioned or impugned, because all ends justify all means.

You think it's a similar situation to now?

I think it's a very similar situation. John Dean has just come out in his book Worse than Watergate saying that Bush should be impeached, and he was there. The major difference was that the president in the Nixon administration was far more intelligent and the goals were ultimately good goals, but on the way the people they took down--including the Cambodians and the innocents--were just things that got in the way of their larger goals: immortality, legacy.

It almost seems an oxymoron to speak of a Nixonian conscience...

But Lees gives Nixon a conscience, and a sense of human responsibility for his actions. Nixon has to look back at the most negative part of his legacy and how he's affected the world, the blood around him that he's created. He actually has to reckon with that, as he has to reckon with God, and his daughter who he put through hell to defend him. He ends up almost having a Shakespearean tragic moment at the end.

Nixon wanted to be the person to bring peace to the world. He wanted to be godlike. But his objective, almost, was to be sanctified.

His foreign policy objectives were of a higher level than we see in this administration, his ultimate aims were of a higher standard. We can say, as criminal, power-hungry or evil as he was, he really ultimately wanted to do something that would last, that was good and that would keep his name in our hearts forever.

I don't feel the same way about the ultimate objectives of this administration.

At least Nixon created a world that was safer. I clearly believe this administration is creating a world that is not safer, that's more dangerous.

Many in the audience now weren't born by Aug. 9, 1974. What do you want to tell them? Why isn't Nixon's Nixon ancient history?

Because this type of abuse of power never becomes ancient history. It happened and it happens. People who get power don't always use it wisely. It's important to be aware of that, to think of the ramifications of anyone in our world who has power. That's always important. Ultimately the play is about us--the U.S. --and about ways we might want to think about how our leaders lead.

Reviews
*** Comic Potential (Actors Comedy Lab)--In Alan Ayckbourne's odd little future comedy, the boss' nephew at a British media conglomerate decides to inject a little humanity back into TV programming by teaching one of the performing androids (who have replaced all actors) the subtleties of physical humor: double-takes, pies in the face, the whole schmeer. When she responds intuitively to comedy, he sees something human in the machine--and falls into forbidden love with her.

Morrisa Nagel is an enigma as Jacie, the robot comedienne. One keeps expecting her to quote Ariel's chill little line in Shakespeare's Tempest, "if I were human." Scott Nagel is likable as her director and love interest Adam, a character seemingly lifted whole from the world of Rod Serling. As the other androids, Sheila Outhwaite, Byron Jennings and David Klionsky send up network melodrama with a glorious side order of ham. Amy Flynn's fine, but finds little challenge here as corporate barracuda Carla Pepperbloom. When he's in character and in moment we truly like Jerry Zieman as the washed-up film director who finds new life in cybercomedy. Now if there only weren't those recurring, nagging moments when he seems to be reading off a teleprompter himself. (Thompson Theater, NCSU. Thursday-Sunday, through Aug. 21. $15-$12. 515-1100.)

** Sex, Drugs & Dinner --The overbroad caricatures in actor Candice Churilla's problematic lampoon of a first play recall cartoonist Brian Walser's infamous gallery of musical berserkers. SD&D follows the extended falling action of Mandy, a potty-mouthed cynic whose worst judgment in men, alcoholic drinks and recreational drugs leads to what's alleged to be the worst marriage, worst job, worst affair and worst collection of friends on Earth.

If only. The abundant blue language didn't automatically trigger laughs in Ringside's third-floor brimstone cabaret two weeks ago, and David Berbarian and Steven Warnock's broad-side-of-a-barn caricatures (as no-good husband and boss, respectively) grew exasperating well before their exit lines. Still, Mark Jeffrey Miller definitely amused as redneck daddy Mike, and Tim Cole briefly hit comic paydirt as Dick, an oily accountant on the make.

Churilla's delivery in the lead role fell too flat too often on opening night--which I'm willing to blame on heat stroke alone, given Ringside's hellish accommodations. But potentially more troublesome, her increasingly joyless script ultimately took on the whine of a geriatric recital of medical woes. These difficulties may significantly lessen in a room that can achieve temperatures below three digits, but on first sight SD&D was a first play that frequently looked like one. (Skylight Exchange, Chapel Hill. Friday-Saturday, Aug. 13-14. $10. 368-5896.)

  • Praying with Nixon--once more, with feeling

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