Stanley I. Kutler: His one-man play about Nixon is to be performed





WHOEVER SAID there is no business but show business was onto something.

Stanley Kutler, the esteemed U.S. historian who lives in Madison, was sipping tea on the far west side Monday afternoon and thinking about something his late, great colleague in the UW history department, George Mosse, used to say about being a professor.

"We don't teach," Mosse said. "We perform."

Recalling his friend, Kutler chuckled and said, "Good teaching is like good theater in a way. I mean, you don't want to take your clothes off. They'd throw things at us. But we're performing. Of course we are."

Warming to the subject, Kutler said, "Richard Nixon was an actor in high school. He claimed to have been a very good actor. 'Better than Ronald Reagan,' he said." Kutler chuckled again. "He always had to one-up everybody."

Next week, at the Washington Stage Guild theater in Washington, D.C., history, academia, politics - and, yes, show business - will come together when for the first time a public reading of Kutler's long-germinating play, "I, Nixon," will be performed.

The reading at the Stage Guild - highly regarded for its staging of the works of George Bernard Shaw and for discovering new plays of merit - is scheduled for Monday. Later in December, in Chicago, there will be a second reading of Kutler's Nixon play. That one is slated for the Victory Gardens Theater, which is housed in the newly renovated Biograph Theatre. (You want history? The Biograph has history. It's where the gangster John Dillinger was gunned down by the FBI in July 1934.)

There will no doubt be those who can make some kind of linear connection from Dillinger to Nixon. Kutler, though not a Nixon fan, is not one of them. For all his attention (in books like "Abuse of Power") to Nixon's dark side, Kutler's overall take has much more nuance. That's what makes "I, Nixon" so eagerly anticipated.

It has been, in any case, a long time coming. Kutler somewhat grumpily says he has been through "approximately 5,700 drafts" of the play. In a sense he has been learning on the job ever since his eyes snapped open at 4 a.m. one day a decade ago (an occupational hazard for authors with a looming deadline) as he approached the finish line on "Abuse of Power," his groundbreaking book on Nixon's Watergate tapes. Looking beyond the book, Kutler whispered to himself: "This is the stuff of drama."

He had some theater contacts in New York and sent them a summary and then a draft of a one-actor play about Nixon. A producer acquired the rights and hired a playwright. The new writer added characters and bells and whistles and when, in the end, nothing came of it, Kutler's feelings were mixed. At least he had his play back.

He tinkered, bringing the one-actor concept back. "I've done far more rewriting on this than anything I've ever done," he said. "It has been both frustrating and rewarding."

Two years ago, Kutler made a breakthrough when a theater insider read it and said, "Stanley, this is a great history lesson. It is not a play."

Now it is - and at least two prestigious theaters think enough of it to be hosting readings in the coming weeks. Potential producers, actors and investors are invited to the readings. Kutler will fly to Washington for Monday's performance at the Stage Guild. Afterward, he'll be on stage himself taking questions. The theater director has warned him that the questioning can at times get pointed.

"Every so often I get terrified thinking about it," Kutler said....

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