WATERTOWN — Jeremiah Kissel and Joel Colodner are plenty impressive on their own, but when these two exemplary actors are paired up, you lean forward in your seat a little, aware that the evening has the potential for a case of brilliance squared, a duet of virtuosity.
Kissel and Colodner deliver on those high expectations as a desperate President Richard M. Nixon and a self-serving Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the engrossing New Repertory Theatre production of “Nixon’s Nixon.’’ Their performances in Russell Lees’s dark 1996 satire are a worthy followup to their stellar work together in New Rep’s “Imagining Madoff’’ (2014) and “Two Jews Walk Into a War’’ (2018).
Though fictional, “Nixon’s Nixon’’ is inspired by an actual meeting between Nixon and Kissinger at the White House on Aug. 7, 1974, the night before Nixon went on television and resigned under the threat of impeachment for his role in the Watergate scandal.
There’s obvious contemporary resonance in a play about a president whose epic corruption, rampant abuse of power, and pervasive venality have created the conditions for his downfall. Nixon clearly won’t be the only president on the minds of New Rep’s audiences, and, just as clearly, that is fully intentional on the part of the Watertown company.
But under the taut direction of Elaine Vaan Hogue, “Nixon’s Nixon’’ stands quite sturdily and wittily on its own merits, without relying for its effectiveness on echoes of the present day. There’s a grim fascination simply in watching the spectacle of two awful people in the same room who are separately strategizing ways to save their own skins and reputations while the walls close in.
Kissel and Colodner wring every ounce of juice from that scorpions-in-a-bottle spectacle as they feint and parry on Afsoon Pajoufar’s large, white, cube-shaped set. When Colodner’s tuxedo-clad Kissinger first enters the Lincoln Sitting Room at 10 p.m., Kissel’s Nixon is listening to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony at top volume while animatedly conducting, waving a rolled-up transcript like a baton. Nixon then tries to play the maestro in his conversation with Kissinger, constantly waving his hands to punctuate a point or dismiss an unwelcome thought.
Initially, Nixon talks past and over Kissinger, speaking not of the damage he has done to the country but instead fretting solipsistically over whether he will go to jail and lose his government pension and what the impact of his resignation will be on his daughter Julie. As for Kissinger, his overarching concern is whether Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, will keep him on as secretary of state. He keeps prodding Nixon to endorse him, while the president deflects. When Kissinger learns that Nixon has been tape-recording their conversations, Colodner brings home the moment with full comic force.
Kissel portrays Nixon as part cornered rat, part used-car salesman who is convinced he can close the deal if he just talks fast enough (except for one scene, the actor wisely refrains from mimicry). In the more reactive role, Colodner captures Kissinger’s lugubrious self-importance, his perpetual straining after gravitas, and the seething resentment, even fury, the onetime Harvard professor feels at having to yield the spotlight to a patron he sees as unworthy of his talents. “If you’re remembered, it will be for what I did,’’ Kissinger snaps at Nixon at one point.
Strangely codependent rivals, each is obsessed with his place in history; each is uneasily aware they will be tethered together in posterity; each is willing to sell out the other in a nanosecond. Hostility toward Kissinger keeps erupting out of Nixon; he smells betrayal. “Somebody around here sold me out. Was it you?’’ he demands of Kissinger. Nixon is also looking for ways to avoid resigning, concluding at one point, in classic “L’Etat, c’est moi’’ fashion, “I’ve got to stay on.’’
“Nixon’s Nixon’’ cuts deepest when their talk turns to the death toll brought about by their policies in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Chile. Kissel summons all his formidable gifts of nuance to convey the way Nixon simultaneously feels the weight of those deaths and pushes away guilt.
It is in that scene, and later when the two fantasize about a mad geopolitical scenario to save Nixon, that the play drives home how thoroughly they see human beings as fundamentally not much more than chess pieces. It is then that “Nixon’s Nixon’’ — rather like today’s daily headlines, come to think of it — forces us to ponder the consequences when men this small wield power this great.
Play by Russell Lees
Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue
Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At MainStage Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown. Through Oct. 6. Tickets $25-$67, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org