'Checkers' review: Nixon bio a little too tricky

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For students of political history and anyone of a certain age, Richard Nixon's so-called "Checkers speech" has a special place on the continuum of campaign oratory. This was master manipulation in the guise of a shaggy-dog story, Nixon's 1952 daredevil denial of a secret slush fund -- presented on live TV -- that made a cleverly mawkish plea to keep a donated family dog named Checkers.

What Douglas McGrath had in mind by attempting to craft a drama around the speech is hard to guess. The premiere, which kicks off the valuable Vineyard Theatre's 30th anniversary season, is a half-baked and pretty pointless piece of fictionalized biography, dotted with unenlightening references to historical figures he has to explain and freighted with stereotypical depictions of real-life backroom heavies (Robert Stanton, Kevin O'Rourke) and a pushy campaign manager (the always-amusing Lewis J. Stadlen).

The biggest lure, at least theoretically, is the chance to see Anthony LaPaglia (of the late, lamented "Without a Trace") and Kathryn Erbe (of the also late and at least as lamented "Law & Order: Criminal Intent") back onstage. Nixon is not an obvious fit for LaPaglia, who is too smart to do an imitation but not given enough leeway -- by the playwright and/or director Terry Kinney -- to make someone both recognizable and new. This Nixon talks gruff and glowers down his nose, but this terrific stage actor is in a straitjacket here.

Erbe has far more success as Pat, perhaps because there is more to fill in about Nixon's sphinx-like wife. Again, without attempting an imitation, Erbe shapes a nuanced, touching portrayal of a good woman appalled by the shamelessness of their political life.

McGrath, an essayist and screenwriter who co-authored Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway," frames Nixon's run as Dwight Eisenhower's vice president with the 1966 decision to run against LBJ for president. Eisenhower (John Ottavino), a needlessly moronic Mamie and the Republican operatives look down from a second level of Neil Patel's set. In the '50s flashback, wonderfully clever scenarios are created with moving projections of white line drawings by Darrel Maloney. They are the most original players in the room.

WHAT "Checkers"

WHERE Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St.

INFO $75; 212-353-0303; vineyardtheatre.org

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BOTTOM LINE Half-baked quasi-biography of Richard and Pat Nixon

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