Martha Mitchell recalled in 'Dirty Tricks'

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Nov. 5, 2004 at 11:45 PM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 5 (UPI) -- Martha Mitchell, a thorn in the side of the Nixon administration and a footnote to history, is remembered with relish in a new one-woman play, "Dirty Tricks," starring veteran actress Judith Ivey at the Off-Broadway Public Theater.

Ivey is giving one of the great performances of her 30-year, two-Tony Award career in the role of Mitchell, the smart but ditsy -- and sometimes drunk -- estranged wife of President Richard M. Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell. Acting on her own, Martha Mitchell took on Nixon, helped bring down the administration that tried to silence her, and became notorious in the process.

"If it hadn't been for Martha there'd have been no Watergate," Nixon said in an interview with David Frost in 1977.

But the play by John Jeter, a first-time playwright with a lot to learn, really fails to prove what is probably an exaggeration on the part of an ex-president still bitter over his forced resignation. One of the play's several flaws is that it never makes clear just what Martha Mitchell said to have precipitated the Watergate scandal, if she really did.

"Martha Mitchell began causing in a sensation the minute her sling-back pumps hit the ground in Washington," wrote Helen Thomas, former United Press International correspondent assigned to the Nixon White House and one of Mitchell's favorite telephone pals.

Compulsively loquacious and opinionated, Mitchell took to calling Thomas and other reporters at any hour of the day or night -- particularly at night -- to mouth off about slimy activities she either knew or suspected were going on inside the Nixon presidency.

Her oft-repeated advice to her media friends was "Follow the money!"

Mitchell's accent was as thick as Scarlett O'Hara's, giving rise to her nickname, "Mouth of the South," and she had all the guile and the fashionable dress sense of a Southern belle at a ball at Tara. The play catches up with her as she arrives in Washington as the wife of a VIP and follows her eccentric career as a steel magnolia to its final days spent defending her fallen husband and his "dirty tricks."

This is a role most actresses would die for, and Ivey is never better than when stumbling, drink in hand, through the set of Mitchell's New York apartment, commenting on objects that jar her memory, especially the headlines of old newspapers she has squirreled away for future reference. Her memories are augmented by voice-overs by the real Martha Mitchell, photographic projects, and old newscasts.

Ivey's vitality as an actress does much to carry the play and hold the audience's attention through what can seem like an interminable blur of yellowed press clippings. Jeter fails to establish any real emotional dimension for Mitchell, and for that reason she has little hold on our sympathies as a martyr to the politics of her era who really believed it when she said "It's your duty to question authority."

The play has been directed with great attention to detail by Margaret Whitton. Neil Patel has created a bedroom set that is as characterless as those in pretentiously deluxe hotels, and Joseph G. Aulisi has costumed Martha in 1960s chic that enhances her blonde good looks. Sage Marie Carter contributed the video design.

Playwright Jeter has been an art director for music videos and television soap operas, commercials, and industrials and lives in Washington. He is working on his second full-length play, which is to be about race relations in the rural south in the civil rights era.


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