Martha Mitchell was a piece of work. Anyone who lived through Watergate remembers her as one of the wackiest sideshows of the whole haywire affair, the boozy, loose-lipped wife of the bloodless, buttoned-up attorney general, John Mitchell. You were forced to choose sides when it came to Martha: You loved her for her spunk, for the way her mouthing off made a detested administration cringe, or you loathed her for her shameless self-aggrandizement, epitomized by those late-night calls to the press that became her hallmark.
A prophet, a manipulator, a joke. But the heroine of a play? A case can probably be made for a historical footnote like Mitchell inhabiting center stage -- she certainly envisioned herself there. But while John Jeter's new one-woman biodrama, "Dirty Tricks," faithfully recalls the moments Mitchell elbowed her way into the news and gossip columns, his play feels like little more than an elegant clip job. It fails to make a compelling mosaic of the incoherent shards of her life.
What does at times help to elevate "Dirty Tricks," which opened last night at the Public Theater, is a prodigiously appealing actress, Judith Ivey, doing her utmost to convey the dizzy fripperies of a desperate Washington wife, navigating the dangerous currents of a national scandal and her own paranoia. Ivey, a stage veteran who did a stint in the ensemble of the slick, steel-magnolia sitcom "Designing Women," expertly affects the manner of a crackpot southern charmer: You could almost imagine this sweet-and-sour Martha, with her cranky toll-call assaults on newspaper editors and liquored-up tirades against her nemesis, Pat Nixon, winding up in some defiantly off-color film by John Waters.
"Dirty Tricks" faces the challenge of many solo shows: figuring out whom the lonesome person up there is talking to. Jeter decides it's posterity, care of Martha's cassette recorder. The time is 1974, on the eve of Richard Nixon's resignation (and two years before Mitchell's own death from cancer), and Martha is eagerly waiting for an interviewer from "60 Minutes" in the Manhattan apartment to which the Mitchells were exiled after their fall from grace in Washington. Set designer Neil Patel gives Martha a tiny kingdom in disrepair, a reflection of her ramshackle mind: The paint is flaking away; the stacks of newspapers are gathering dust. Onto the recesses in the walls, director Margaret Whitton flashes historical film footage, which only adds to the production's scattershot documentary feel.
The room is, naturally, filled with phones -- a blue princess phone; a black push-button, multi-line phone; one of those French provincial-style phones they always placed in hotel suites in Audrey Hepburn movies -- and by play's end, Martha will have carried on over all of them, to Helen Thomas, to Bob Woodward, to this, that and the other so-and-so. In the early days of her reign of long-distance terror, she explains that she was encouraged by Nixon himself to "give 'em hell," and she took him at his word. In one of the funnier flashback sequences, Ivey's agitated Martha, furious over the impending Senate rejection of G. Harold Carswell, a southern nominee to the Supreme Court, dials a nomination opponent, Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas.
"Yes," she says, "is this the residence of Senator Halfbright or Quarterbright, whatever you call him?"
She stalks the powerful with an impulsive, infantile courageousness that is both irritating and admirable, and when she turns on Nixon, for what she sees as a scapegoating of her husband, it is with the vicious instinct of a cornered cougar.
Jeter, however, tries to suggest in "Dirty Tricks" that Mitchell is more than a loudmouth with a megaphone, that because she eventually spoke out about the malignancy of Nixon's Oval Office, she earned a certain martyrdom. For those unschooled in the era or too young to recall it, the details of her story, haphazardly assembled here, may be difficult to process, let alone evaluate. Even the legions of Watergate-obsessed, those for whom Ervin and Dash and McCord and Ben-Veniste and Mitchell are names etched in marble, may conclude that Jeter's beatification of Martha is neither justified nor persuasively argued.
Speaking of dirty tricks, the Public Theater has -- on paper anyway -- an intriguing mate for the Mitchell play, by that inimitable chronicler of malice in high places, Shakespeare. A new "Richard III" is running at the Public in tandem with "Dirty Tricks." But its major distinction, aside from the casting of Peter Dinklage, a dwarf ("The Station Agent"), in the role of Richard, is that it is one of the most dreadful productions of Shakespeare to have been mounted in New York since Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Goldblum mumbled and stumbled their way through "Twelfth Night" in 1989.
The director, Peter Dubois, presents the play on a bare stage, decorated simply, in red fabric. The message seems to be: "All we care about is acting!" If only. Scenes that should briskly depict Richard's murderous rise move instead like beach traffic in August, and some sequences, such as one detailing the slaughter of the Duke of Clarence (Ron Cephas Jones), seem comically to call to mind the latest splatter flick. Sure-fire moments, like Richard's wooing of Lady Anne (Kali Rocha) over the body of her dead father-in-law, are impenetrably bland. Two exceptions are Connor Paolo and Peter Vack, playing the vibrant young sons of Edward IV.
Dinklage is of course an interesting choice for Richard, and when he or other characters speak of Richard's physical imperfections, the play is revealed in a novel way; the notion of Richard's self-consciousness about his appearance is rarely dramatized so effectively. Still, Dinklage is unable to provide anything close to an insight into why Richard becomes a killing machine; he projects almost no personality at all. That, in itself, is fatal.
Dirty Tricks, by John Jeter. Directed by Margaret Whitton. Costumes, Joseph G. Aulisi; lighting, Stephen Strawbridge; sound, Fitz Patton; video, Sage Marie Carter. Approximately 90 minutes. Through Nov. 7.
Richard III, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Peter Dubois. Set, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Marina Draghici; lighting, Scott Zielinski; music and sound, Scott Myers; choreography, David Neumann. With Stephen Barker Turner, Mercedes Herrero, James Yaegashi, Ty Burrell, Isa Thomas, Tom Nelis, Roberta Maxwell. Approximately 3 hours 10 minutes. Through Sunday. Both productions running at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., Manhattan. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.publictheater.org.