"SECRET HONOR" is a frighteningly funny visit with a haunted, hounded Richard Nixon, with all his dirty tricks on the table, all his expletives undeleted.
Written by playwright Donald Freed and historian Arnold M. Stone, "Secret Honor" has been successfully recreated at New Playwrights' Theater by the original production team -- actor Philip Baker Hall, director Robert Harders and set and lighting designer Russell Hye, who also collaborated on Robert Altman's filmed version -- and it gains a peculiar resonance just by being performed a few blocks from where it all happened.
"You, ladies and gentlemen, shall look at the face that is under the mask," mutters a fictional Nixon, toying with a gun in his locked, firelit study as he dictates into a tape recorder what may be his last testament. "The American people could not have tood the whole truth . . ."
Alternately pathetic and vitriolic, this Nixon proceeds to paint America as a nation of children eager to be deceived, and he details in helter-skelter fashion the Freed-Stone fantasy of the untold story of Nixon's presidency. The playwrights posit that Nixon was a puppet of shadowy Figures of Industry, the Committee of 100, who lured the naive young man to the Bohemian Grove with the promise of a winning political career, and made him a figurehead, perpetuating the Vietnam War for their profit. The fictional Nixon claims that Watergate was really his crowning, uncelebrated achievement, that he sacrificed both his presidency and place in history to save the nation from the greed of the big money boys by refusing to continue as their pawn.
In his boozy rambling, Nixon lashes out in bitterness at a lifetime of persecutors, and there are plenty of slanderous (and wickedly funny) asides about Eisenhower, the Kennedys and, of course, Henry the K. But he soon remembers himself and instructs his unseen assistant "Roberto" to erase the tape back to the starting point.
Hall's performance is astonishing in its completeness. Not only does he have a subsurface resemblance to Nixon, but his voice and very thought patterns sound familiar. As he confuses words -- Roosevelt with Rosenberg, lobbyists with lobsters, welfare with "wellfat" -- all his tangents degenerate into incoherent sputtering.
Amusing and disturbing, "Secret Honor" provokes some unsettling thoughts about how those we think we have put in control are themselves controlled; how we have let all that power slip into the hands of a few.
Don't be surprised to find yourself believing Freed and Stone's "political myth" while you're sitting in the dark at New Playwrights'. And when the lights go up and common sense returns, you may still find yourself with a little more compassion for Nixon the man.
SECRET HONOR -- At New Playwrights' Theater through February 2.