Martha Mitchell Calling

A play worthy of Watergate.

Five things you should know before seeing Martha Mitchell Calling:

1. Martha Mitchell Calling is irritating.

It's irritating because Martha Mitchell is irritating, even more so in this production than in life. She was the wife of John Mitchell, attorney general to Richard Nixon until 1972, and in the early Seventies she commanded the attention of more Americans than her husband or just about any other full-time politico in Washington. It was her mouth that did it. Mitchell was a loud Arkansas girl, attached to her telephone, eager to chat up a monsoon with anybody willing to pick up. This made a lot of people on Capitol Hill queasy in the wake of Watergate, when often the folks at the other end of the line were Bob Woodward and Helen Thomas.

Miller as Mitchell, the Mouth of the South
Miller as Mitchell, the Mouth of the South

Details

Written by Jodi Rothe. Directed by Daniela Varon. With Annette Miller and Gordon McConnell. Through December 23. Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-44-9293, www.actorsplayhouse.org.

Helen Thomas liked Martha Mitchell, because Mitchell had come to hate the Nixon administration, was privy to its secrets, and tended to tell the truth. She was always good for a story. But Thomas never had to spend a night in her bedroom, watching the loquacious Southern belle swill Tanqueray and riff on whatever popped into her well-quaffed head. This is what happens when you go see Martha Mitchell Calling, and for the first 30 minutes or so, it's torturous, because Mitchell is screechingly, hellishly loud.

Early in the play, bravely staking a claim on more history than even Richard Nixon ever tried to own, playwright Jodi Rothe has Mitchell exhort the audience: "Remember Cassandra and the Trojan Wars? Nobody listened to her, either. And where are those Trojans now? Nothing but a football team in California." The fervor and shrillness with which the onstage Mitchell accosts her audience make it clear that her message is no less important than Cassandra's. Unfortunately it doesn't seem that way until you're almost an hour into the play. Until then, Martha is just a ditzy, drawling drunk, extolling her love for an attorney general who was never very interesting anyway.

2. Martha Mitchell Calling is educational.

Even if John Mitchell never was very interesting, the circumstances surrounding his brief and ugly career in Washington are nothing less than fascinating. It's satisfying to learn that he became a Republican only upon meeting Richard Nixon at a party, after which Martha suggested that changing allegiances might be good for his career. "Don't you think it's time to join your wife in the party of Lincoln?" she asked.

But the play's educational value has less to do with dates, places, and circumstances than the application of human faces to an inhuman episode in American politics. "Every Southern rose has its Yankee thorn," says Mitchell, referring to Pat Nixon, after the first lady sent Mitchell a chiding note about her display of cleavage at a cabinet luncheon. When she decided to tell the reporters aboard Air Force One how much she disliked the Vietnam War, the assembled journalists "nearly choked on their peanuts" over her audacity. Through those episodes and countless others — eavesdropping on hubby's late-night phone calls with Henry Kissinger, singing and hula-dancing her way through a brandy-and-cigar bull session of Nixon people while the men look on, stunned — Rothe's script puts flesh on the bones of those weird years.

3. Martha Mitchell Calling is funny.

Mitchell is so attached to her telephone that it matches her pink nightie, and the rest of the set is accordingly color-coordinated, comprising permutations of pink and creamy white. Seeing Mitchell totter through this environment is like watching a drunken version of the Fantasia ballets, set in an outsize wad of cotton candy. It's cloying at first, and it goes with Mitchell's extreme Southernness, which is so broadly drawn you think she'll materialize a fan and faint in a moment of duress.

But once she smells something foul in the administration, and senses it's about to gobble up her husband, the vibe changes. Even Martha's most throwaway lines (comparing Richard Nixon to a "fish stick dinner") resonate and make you laugh. This doesn't equate with drama, but that's not the point. In Martha Mitchell Calling, we are simply being asked to root for this woman, who's trying to remain true to herself. So you want to chuckle, and you do — even in moments of extremely poor taste, like when she somehow turns a joke about Henry Kissinger's accent into a lamentation of her lonely vagina.

4. Martha Mitchell Calling is sad.

Although Martha is obnoxious, educational, and funny, she's mostly sad. Warring Washington allegiances destroyed her marriage and turned the man she loved into a person she didn't know. She died of cancer three years later. Most people still thought of her as a loudmouthed flake. On the rare occasion that people think of her now, they think of her as a loudmouthed flake from a time nobody wants to think much about.

5. Martha Mitchell Calling is important.

Not to theater in general, and probably not even to the vast majority of potential theatergoers, but Martha Mitchell is important because Mitchell deserves this kind of show. Come this time next year, after the release of the very first Martha Mitchell biopic, Dirty Tricks (starring Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, Annette Bening, and Sharon Stone), we might be in the midst of a Martha Mitchell revival, and her memory may be overinflated. But for now, Mitchell was just a somewhat daft woman who was brave and got nothing for it. She might as well get this. It won't mean much to her at this late date. But if you're the kind of person who thinks history is supposed to be honored, explored, played with, celebrated, and, most of all, gotten right, then it might mean something to you.

 
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