David Dubin of Lindenhurst's Studio Theatre says it's a coincidence that he opened "Checkers," the pre-presidential Richard Nixon drama by Douglas McGrath, on June 5. That's the date, 47 years ago, when Robert Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan moments after the New York senator declared victory in the California primary. It was widely believed that, had Kennedy survived, he would have been the Democratic nominee and that, with a peace candidate, the party convention would not have been marred by riots and Nixon would lose to another Kennedy.
It's the great irony of "Checkers" that Nixon timed his political comeback to avoid facing Kennedy in 1972. Conventional wisdom had it that Lyndon Johnson would run for re-election in 1968. So in 1966, Nixon's political strategist, Murray Chotiner, encouraged him to seek the Republican nomination. The chief obstacle was a promise Nixon made to his wife and repeatedly broke -- that he'd never again run for office.
Carolyn Popadin as Pat Nixon, soon to be a most reluctant first lady, earns our sympathy. Scott Earle as Nixon looks the part, though his flashing of the double-V-for-victory verges on caricature and his glowering intensity seems studied. But Earle projects two sides of Nixon, one of which was exposed in the surrender of the Watergate tapes. Profane and paranoid, this is the Nixon who created enemies and -- as characterized in the play's long behind-the-scenes flashback to his first national campaign -- he was his own worst enemy as well.
News reports in 1952 about a secret fund -- money from campaign supporters that he said was used for political expenses while detractors suggested it was for personal gain -- jeopardized Nixon's spot on the ticket with Dwight Eisenhower. To save his shot at the vice presidency, Nixon goes on TV to convince America that he's not a crook. The so-called Checkers speech took its name from that of a cocker spaniel, a gift to his daughters by a campaign contributor. Nixon said he would not return the pet -- no matter the cost to his career.
But as directed by Dubin, the most compelling moments are private ones between Pat and Dick over competing obsessions -- hers for privacy, his for the presidency. While David Rifkind as Chotiner represents the ruthless side of his client, Popadin movingly elicits the painful truth that her husband loves her almost as much as he loves politics. Almost.
Political junkies may find "Checkers" compelling. Others may find its nasty side boorish and depressing in what it says about politics.
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays through June 21, Studio Theatre, 141 S. Wellwood Ave., Lindenhurst
TICKETS $25; 631-226-8400, studiotheatreli.com