But Not for Me, making its planetary premiere at South Coast Repertory, is Keith Reddin’s eavesdrop on the antagonists of California’s 1950 Senate race, Richard Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas. The play disappoints, mostly because it unfolds during two brief, if talky, scenes in which the candidates never cross paths. There is no ideological arm-wrestling going on here, nor any of the up-close-and-personal theatrics between these implacable foes that might have made for flashy drama.
This really, then, is an evening of two one-acts, with Act 1, which takes place in Nixon’s suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel a week before the election, being far more substantial than the act that follows — a scene set in Douglas’ suite, in the same hotel, on the evening of her crushing defeat. Unifying the acts is the appearance in both suites of a politically progressive bellhop (David Denman), an Occidental College student whose sympathies for Douglas’ platform are shattered by her imperious rudeness.
Roy Day passes on
to Nixon a torch that
but only burn down other people’s dreams.
In Act 1, Reddin offers a shrewd appraisal of American political ambition, an omen prophesying the locust swarm of conservative politicians who have been descending on Washington since the Cold War. The Nixon (Greg Stuhr) we see is not the familiar caricature of old Herblock cartoons or Dan Aykroyd impersonations. Instead, he is a young man still influenced by sentimental songs and schoolbook fables about Jefferson and Lincoln, a believer not only in his country’s infallibility, but in its redemptive promise as well. And yet his humorless conversation is seared by a burning hurt, the resentment of a kid who grew up poor amid Quaker gentility while other guys had chauffeured rides from the cradle to Ivy League schools and then to jobs at the State Department and on Wall Street.
This is the Nixon we meet when he opens the door: a man at war with himself — and a character beautifully played by Stuhr, who’s helped by his uncanny resemblance to the man from Yorba Linda. We immediately know who and what Stuhr is playing; we understand the vulnerability and the single-mindedness — and the paranoia — that define his existence. The first thing he asks one of his campaign leaders, Roy Day (Richard Doyle), is if it’s okay for them to be seen alone in this suite: “I mean, two guys in a hotel room — in the middle of the day.” Nixon then gets down to business: He’s got to beat the pink Democrat, this congresswoman who represents L.A.’s South-Central district, but he’s not going to stoop to anything low. No, that’s just not the way he was raised. Besides, he says, “How would that look — me beating up on a woman?”
Day has the answer: Leave the dirty work to others. Let other people — guys like Roy Day — organize the egg throwers and hecklers who dogged Douglas’ campaign, let them set up the phone banks to spread rumor and innuendo about Nixon’s opponent. To that end, Day has planted Nixon boosters at a speech being given, at this very moment, by Douglas at Beverly Hills High School. Soon Nixon will drive over there and make a disruptive “surprise” appearance while Douglas is still at the podium.
Good old Roy, in fact, is both the godfather to Nixon’s political career and this play’s true north. Nixon may be mildly irked by his hardscrabble youth and a lifetime of snubs he thinks he’s received, but Roy Day is a creature genuinely consumed and nourished by hate, a self-made man who graduated summa cum laude from the school of hard knocks and who embodies the resentment and suspicion that dominate this country’s political culture. During one Captain Queeg–ish monologue, this old adman all but bleeds the anger, outrage and bigotry of a betrayed petite bourgeoisie.
It’s a spellbinding scene masterfully pulled off by Doyle and directed by David Emmes; together they create a twilight figure delighted by leaving big tips but who cannot, as he sorrowfully admits, pray to God. It is on the young Nixon that Day and his older generation, who were so helped yet so affronted by the New Deal, place all their hopes. And, when Nixon gently tells him that he plans to drive to Beverly Hills High School without him, Day gets the message that he is too raw to be seen in public, and you can almost hear him swallowing this poisonous pill, only to accept the snub like a soldier. After all, he has passed on to Nixon the torch — a torch that cannot illuminate, but only burn down other people’s dreams.
A week later, in Act 2, we find the congresswoman (Linda Gerhringer) knocking back a lot of booze with her husband, actor Melvyn Douglas (Dan Kern), and, while the maverick bitchiness that helped Douglas lose in a state two-thirds Democratic is sometimes glimpsed, most of the act is given to Hollywood jokes, strident putdowns of Nixon and, ultimately, marital friction. (But Not for Me might have played better if the comparatively slight Douglas piece had been staged first, paving the way for the show proper rather than tagging behind it.)
There is also an unfortunate moment when a sloshed Helen does a Frances Farmer and prepares to meet the press downstairs naked, only to miraculously sober up and leave, reconciled, with her husband. They say there are no second acts in American lives, but Reddin’s generic liberal heroine doesn’t even seem to have had a second dimension.