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For Dramatists, Nixon's Still the One

Helen Gahagan Douglas, Richard Nixon (AP file photos)

Actor Patrick Breen with Wendy Kout, who co-wrote the play. (Maxine Picard)

Will we always have Dick Nixon to kick around? Let's hope so, if only for the sake of the showbiz folks: They need him!

Fresh off the "Frost/Nixon" tour de force comes "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas," a quirky, short play about the 1950 California Senate race that was staged here Tuesday night as a benefit for the National Women's Law Center.

We know, we know -- sounds like one of those only-in-Washington things. But they've also done readings in New York and L.A., so there you go. The one-act, by journalist Michele Willens and TV writer Wendy Kout, dramatizes the bare-knuckled matchup between Nixon, then a young congressman, and Gahagan Douglas, a former actress who was the first Democratic woman elected to Congress from California. Hinting at Red sympathies, he dubbed her "the pink lady"; she named him "Tricky Dick."

It's a slightly surreal staging, an omnipresent Nixon bearing witness to moments in Gahagan Douglas's life that he wasn't actually, you know, there for in real life. He sniggers at her liberal pieties and life of privilege, interjects self-serving smarm ("Did I mention my mother is a saint?"), and in general is so odiously snarky he becomes almost ... endearing. In a twerpy way. Think Paul Lynde on "Hollywood Squares." "A comic Iago," said Patrick Breen, who plays Nixon. Yeah, that's what we meant! (Former "Just Shoot Me" star Wendie Malick played Gahagan Douglas; Broadway star James Naughton played her movie-star husband, Melvyn Douglas.)

At a post-show reception in the Woolly Mammoth Theatre lobby, Breen (you'd recognize him from "Sex and the City" and a hundred other TV guest spots) was clear-eyed and unjowly. How did he manage to channel the ex-prez?

"It's all the voice," he said. "But I find myself thinking about Dan Aykroyd as Nixon more than Nixon."

By The Reliable Source  |  June 18, 2009; 1:04 AM ET
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