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Death of a Nation 

Donald Freed’s newest play, American Iliad

Wednesday, May 30 2001
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”Loss of innocence“ is one of those romantic phrases writers and historians love to bandy about as though, in a national context at least, it actually means something. Some say that America lost her innocence during the Civil War; others, at the Rosenbergs‘ trial, the Vietnam War or, according to novelist-playwright Donald Freed, on the day JFK was gunned down in Dallas. The subsequent Warren Commission Report on the assassination -- acquitting the FBI and the CIA of any criminal involvement -- triggered what Freed describes as ”a rip tide of disbelief and dissent“ on the nation’s college campuses. This theme is the basis of Freed and Mark Lane‘s book, Executive Action, adapted for the screen by Dalton Trumbo in David Miller’s 1973 film, long before JFK was even a twinkle in Oliver Stone‘s eye.

Pivotal national paroxysms, like the killing of a president or the murder trial of a celebrity football player, are treated as social and political traumas that are somehow turning points in the collective maturing of a citizenry, rather than just more droplets in history’s relentless Niagara of duplicity and murder. As though our country is somehow a more cynical place today, because of the sham the Warren Commission Report appears to be, than when pioneers and the Sioux exchanged gunfire on the Dakota plains; or when lynch mobs roamed Mississippi; or, during WWII, when Du Pont and General Motors made trade and research agreements with the German company I.G. Farber and, by extension, with the Nazis; or when Al Capone ran Chicago. As though America, or any other civilization, was ever innocent.

At the philosophical heart of Donald Freed‘s infinitely fascinating epic fantasia-with-music, American Iliad (receiving its premiere at Burbank’s Victory Theater), lies the wobbly premise that on November 22, 1963, the day we lost JFK, America lost her innocence. Freed never uses that phrase, but it‘s floating in the stage light nonetheless.

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In an early scene, a deranged and dying Richard Nixon (Al Rossi) -- the play’s central character -- meets the silver-haired, incontinent and wheelchair-bound phantom of JFK (David Clennon) on some Greek island. ”Jack,“ Nixon pleads with quivering jowls, ”I have to know -- who killed you?“ After he reflects for a moment, Kennedy‘s chuckle escalates into hysterical laughter, eventually shared by Nixon, prompting Nixon to repeat the question. Eventually Kennedy puts mirth aside: ”[Hoover] said I was shot -- and the others -- so that you . . . you or somebody like you . . . would become president!“

”Jack,“ Nixon continues. ”That’s why I finally had to come here, to see for myself, to find out the truth, to hear it, to prove it wasn‘t me who did it . . . [who] killed the country -- blew its brains out!“

One might argue that the viewpoint in which the character of Nixon assesses JFK’s assassination as the moment of America‘s demise should not be confused with Freed’s viewpoint -- an argument supported by Nixon‘s own dialogue referring to his father: ”Nobody remembers a fucking thing . . . It all died with Lincoln. All over by 1870, the old man told me.“

However, Freed juxtaposes Nixon’s dystopian visages and words with scenes, sprinkled throughout the play, of a straw-hatted, hymn-singing ensemble, representing members of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, characterized by Walt Whitmanesque ideals, on Independence Day, 1900. (The Circle was formed to revive hope after the Civil War‘s ravages.)

”What a fellowship, what a joy divine . . . What a blessedness, what a peace is mine, leaning on the everlasting arms,“ they sing in unison.

For these scenes, Rossi’s Nixon morphs into the Music Man: His posture straightens, his gait lightens, even the watery glaze in his eyes appears to transform into a sparkle. No matter who says it was all over by 1870, the uplift provided by these scenes and the music‘s defiance of gravity demonstrate the opposite. Here is the embodiment of national innocence, of America in her youth, the very exuberance gutted by the elder Nixon’s Beckett-like ramblings on a golf course in purgatory.

A play‘s point of view comes not from the words but from the situations that provoke them. The situations, the very structure of American Iliad says, over and over: innocence lost, which implies a certain innocence to be lost, which renders Freed’s play something of a romantic fallacy -- though a very shrewd, funny and insightful fallacy. I‘d certainly go back and see it again.

The play opens on July 4, 2000, with the ”90-year-old“ Nixon on the aforementioned golf course (a bare stage, walled with flats painted in angled strips of Old Glory -- set by Tom Ormeny). Most of the props are mimed, but not all: A bar and drinks are left to the audience’s imagination; not so the tape recorder into which Nixon rambles non sequiturs, as in Freed‘s earlier Nixon homage, Secret Honor -- as in Beckett’s Krapp‘s Last Tape, from which Iliad’s blend of wit, nostalgia and pathos seems inspired. A golf bag toted around by Nixon‘s caddie, Roberto (Marco Pelaez), inscribed with ”Property of the U.S. Government,“ is also a touch of the touchable that director Maria Gobetti didn’t want to dispense with, doubtless for its spark of whimsy.

As Roberto attempts to prevent the already near-dead ex-president from drowning himself in a lake, Mr. Nixon conjures memories for his final book, Going Home, in a reverie (accompanied on keyboard by music director David Morisaki) that leads him back to Chautauqua, 1900, to a painfully racist minstrel show (credit the producers for showing historical scars rather than shirking them), to the Greek island where resides the ghost of JFK, and into sundry clouds cuckooland where, in one instance, flat-footed Nixon ends up busing dishes at a restaurant for J. Edgar Hoover (Travis Michael Holder). Nixon also runs into his late wife, Pat, as well as Marilyn Monroe, both delicately played by Diana Costa. These are women with opposing experiences and temperaments who, nonetheless, depict a common loneliness emanating from a life in the national limelight.

Similarly on opposite sides of the same coin are Nixon and JFK, whom the ravages of time have rendered inversions of their former selves. There may be shadows of Nixon as bully, but, despite a tendency to exaggerate a tricky Dick lampoon, Rossi‘s Nixon reveals a bewildered patriot in second childhood, struggling to make sense of what went so terribly wrong -- with the nation as well as with his life. The attempt of such an impetuous character to be reflective has a comedic agony all to itself.

Clennon’s gaunt JFK, on the other hand, in sunglasses and with silver stubble, rolls around in his wheelchair like an old hedonist fox, bereft of the youthful ideals that inspired a generation to public service and principles of fairness. The Boston dialect is all that remains, delivered in withering cadences. He is cared for by two nurses, one of whom (Costa) opens her blouse for him to suck from her breast. She rubs his hair and wipes his lips with a towel. Our Hero. Kennedy offers her to Nixon for the same service, but he‘s too agog to partake: The Catholic and the Quaker, the playboy and the Puritan, the ”mean, world-champion son-of-a-bitch“ and the ”naive true-blue country boy underneath that long-headed facade of tics and tricks . . . We suckled power from the same tit.“

For an old lefty with an FBI file on him the size of Milwaukee, Freed shows remarkable compassion for Nixon as a senile old codger, who speaks more in blurts and repetitions than sentences. Clinton may have lied about an adulterous blowjob, but Nixon lied about masterminding a patently illegal break-in of Democratic Party offices. Earlier, he had gleefully tried to destroy the credibility of California Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, as though borrowing his smarmy technique from J. Edgar Hoover. (Indeed, in the ’50s, Nixon used to parade around in the same kind of fedora worn by Hoover.) None of which is in American Iliad, as though such trifles are too petty for a vision of Freed‘s scale. This is not a play about partisan politics, moral outrage or getting even, but about the sadness of destiny.

”The point is, we are cohorts,“ Kennedy intones to Nixon. ”The differences don’t matter because, between us, we defined our age . . . We‘re the undead, you and I.“

Director Gobetti blends Freed’s Joycean musings into an early-20th-century music hall, thereby nudging what is essentially a political meditation into an entertainment that‘s part chorale, and quite moving. Gears are still grinding with some shifts in style, but that may resolve itself with time. The Stars and Stripes visual motif is apt for a music hall, but it does bog down Freed’s ideas with the weight of obviousness.

Freed poses the historical question, What went wrong? Almost any scholar or historian would attempt to answer it, turning Freed‘s play into a lecture. Any poet knows that such a question is unanswerable. Thank God Freed doesn’t try.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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