Off-broadway play asks its audience to vote on Nixon’s complicity in Watergate
He’s not a crook.
At least that is what most audiences of an off-Broadway play about President Richard M. Nixon — starring famed impersonator Rich Little — think of the late, disgraced Watergate figure.
The show puts the audience of “Trial on the Potomac” in place of the Senate, which, after the curtain call, must vote on whether or not to “convict” Tricky Dick at an impeachment trial, something Nixon avoided in real life by resigning.
The results: of 26 showings so far, just one — a Sunday matinee — collected the required 67 votes to convict. All others found Nixon “not guilty.”
The play at the Theatre at St. Clement’s is based on documents painstakingly uncovered in the years since Nixon’s 1974 resignation by Geoff Shepard, 76, who in his 20s was a lawyer in the Nixon White House and worked on the president’s Watergate defense.
His thesis: Nixon was the victim of “a secret cabal of prosecutors, judges and congressional staff.”
Little, 82, who said he’d had to “dust off” his Nixon impression after five decades, says he has a new view of Nixon.
“Back during Watergate, I wasn’t a huge fan of his. But I didn’t know all the information that Geoff came up with. And if you read his book and study Nixon more closely — like Geoff did for God knows how many years — you come to a different conclusion,” Little told The Post.
Little, a regular on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” made a career out of his Nixon impersonation.
“If you look at what’s happening today, Watergate is practically nothing, really,” he said.
The “Man of a Thousand Voices” went on, pointing to the 1960 election: “The similarities between Nixon and Donald Trump is, they both say the election was stolen. And I think it was — both of them.”
Chief among the papers Shepard turned up: the prosecution’s formerly-sealed Watergate “road map,” which the National Archives only released in 2018 after Shepard won in federal court. The “crux” of the documents is the formerly-sealed top accusation that Nixon authorized the key $75,000 payment to Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt. But Shepard says the chronology doesn’t line up — and asserts that the road map’s authors deliberately obfuscated this.
Onstage, any time an actor raises a document, it’s a copy of the real thing, Shepard said. In one case it is Shepard’s own copy of the Nixon Oval Office tapes transcript, which he spent countless hours compiling himself in 1974.
The infamous 18 ½ minute gap in the tapes “remains an unsolved mystery,” Shepard said. “Still, in 2014 [former White House Counsel] John Dean described it as ‘historically insignificant mainly because the conversation occurred three days after the break-in arrests — well before any facts were known.”
“There are no loose ends in the play. You could get representatives from the special prosecutor’s office to try and fly-speck it — to try to pick out something that’s wrong — and they can’t do it. Every document is referenced, it’s available to the public, and the story follows fact,” Shepard said.
The playwright, George Bugatti, said he approached Shepard after reading one of his books, “The Real Watergate Scandal: Collusion, Conspiracy, and the Plot That Brought Nixon Down.”
“The challenge was to dramatize these documents and to make them come alive and not have it come across as one huge legal brief,” he said.
Though the show is scheduled to close Sept. 4, Shepard said his goal wasn’t to put on a “financially successful play.” Rather, it was “to have future scholars and researchers say, ‘I’ll be a son of a gun.’”