Playing Politics: FDR-Era Annie’s Wanly Charming, Emotional Creature Is Affecting but Unoriginal, Ivanov Exhausts

'Checkers' presents poignant portrait of Tricky Dick, Election Day-set 'Sorry' is moving, timely

SPEAKING OF SELF-INVOLVED, self-indulgent self-pity: Checkers arrived last week at the Vineyard Theatre, a fascinating and well-timed examination of Richard Nixon.

Douglas McGrath’s play seems to argue that modern presidential politics—or, perhaps, the fact-denying, perpetually aggrieved modern Republican Party—began with Nixon’s 1952 campaign for vice president as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate. The crucible Mr. McGrath uses to tell that story is the episode that culminated in what’s known as the Checkers speech—when, after the revelation of a secret campaign fund, Nixon was nearly forced from the ticket until he gave a speech defending himself, not just to voters but also to GOP leaders, insisting that he wouldn’t return one gift from a donor, a cocker spaniel his girls named Checkers.

The gambit was a success, but what’s most striking in Mr. McGrath’s telling is Nixon’s determination, his ruthlessness and how deeply he is convinced that the old-line political establishment is determined to crush him. (It’s not coincidental that the working-class Californian’s only loyal aide in his battle against the mandarins, at least in this version, was Murray Chotiner, a foul-mouth, cigar-chomping Jew.) When Nixon rails against Ivy-educated, New York Times-reading elites, as he does repeatedly, the play sounds awfully current.

Anthony LaPaglia gives an effective, not overly bombastic performance as the 37th president, recognizably the man—stooped, jowly—and not a caricture. For most of the play, Kathryn Erbe seems underutilized in the slim role of Pat, living up to the caricature of the future first lady as milquetoast helpmeet. But a surprising aspect of Mr. McGrath’s play is its depiction of an unexpected tenderness between Dick and Pat, and a highlight is a monologue Mrs. Nixon delivers before her husband drafts the pivotal speech, imploring him not to give in to his resentments but rather to revel in what she loves about him: his resilience, his honesty, his dedication. Here, Ms. Erbe is moving, and it’s a remarkable accomplishment of both actors that their romance feels genuine.

But if Pat’s role is to keep Dick human—and in Checkers, it certainly is—she’s fighting a losing battle. In that 1952 campaign, he swears to her that he’ll never run for political office again. In a 1966 epilogue, with Chotiner (Lewis J. Stadlen) urging him on, Nixon decides to run for president. In betraying Pat, he is choosing his ambition over that humanity.

IN HIS CYCLE OF up-to-the-minute, set-on-the-day-they-open plays about the Apple family of Rhinebeck, Richard Nelson has also worked to balance the human and the political. The first two installments, That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad, came on the day of the 2010 midterm elections and the 10th anniversary of September 11, respectively. The latest, Sorry, about Election Day 2012, opened last week at the Public Theater, and it’s the best of three, precisely because Mr. Nelson spends the least time on politics.

In the past, Mr. Nelson has seemed more interested in making political statements than developing the Apples—sisters Marian (Laila Robins) and Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), schoolteachers sharing a house in Rhinebeck; uncle Benjamin (Jon DeVries), a former actor suffering from dementia who lives with them; brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a lawyer in New York; and sister Jane (J. Smith-Cameron), an author also living in the city. They are lefties, but they ask questions, and I found the first two plays overly self-congratulatory about raising points it seemed to me had already been raised elsewhere.

But Mr. Nelson was also, it turns out, expertly building this family’s story, and in Sorry I was hooked. The main tension this time is Uncle Benjamin—the family is gathered because it’s the day they’ll be moving him to a home. All sorts of questions are presented by this: whether it’s fair to do this to someone who doesn’t always remember what’s happening to him, what obligation the younger generation has to the older, how to handle guilt even if you’re doing the right thing. The election is acknowledged, but more obliquely than in the past. Mostly we just spend time with this family we’ve come to know, as they work through their quotidian crap. It’s riveting.

After watching Sorry, which is directed by the author and, per usual, marvelously acted, I was for the first time eager for my next visit with the Apples.

editorial@observer.com