Dis Nixon?

Richard Nixon! Helen Gahagan Douglas! All in a new play at SCR!

This is the second Reddin play launched at SCR that uses historical events to comment on contemporary situations. Rum and Coke, staged in 1985, used the botched Bay of Pigs invasion as a metaphor for U.S. involvement in Central America. But that was a wild farce; this time, Reddin is going for reality. He conducted copious research, including a visit to the Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, where he was the first artist/writer to view recently released memos, correspondence and other documents from the campaign. He estimates 90 percent of what characters say in But Not for Me was actually said by the key participants at some time.

But the accuracy doesn't stem from Reddin's desire to write a documentary-style play. It's a product, Reddin says, of his acknowledgement that the truth is truly bizarre. "In this case, the truth was as dramatic as fiction-if not more so. The more I researched, the less I had to make up because it was so complex, fascinating and puzzling."

Equally fascinating is the fact that this play is being produced at all. SCR is generally an apolitical theater, and a play about a controversial chapter in Nixon's life is bound to produce shock waves. "South Coast Repertory is definitely taking a risk," Reddin says. "This is still Nixon country, and anything that's going to shake the preconceptions is a gamble. A lot of theaters wouldn't touch this. They're afraid political plays are going to make their subscribers angry, or they feel their audiences don't care about history and politics. I tend to give audiences more credit than that."

Ultimately, what Reddin hopes to accomplish isn't to vilify or revise Nixon's character, but to wonder. "I've always been perplexed by this man," he says. "Just like in 1972: he was going to win this election. He was going to win big. He was the right man at the right time, a brilliant debater and politician who didn't have to resort to the types of things that went on. So my challenge as a dramatist is different from a historian's. I can try to understand what the motives were, to present the facts and then go deeper. Not to put myself in his category, but it's what Shakespeare was doing with his history plays."

And if anyone could appreciate a story as tragic, epic and compelling as Richard Nixon's, it'd be Shakespeare.

But Not for Me at South Coast Repertory Theatre, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Nov. 6-Dec. 6. $25-$43.

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