Tricky Dick

If ever days were ripe for a good political satire, these are they. Wondrously, as if right on cue, Stages has pulled some timely magic from the theatrical closet. Artistic Director Rob Bundy had the foresight to choose the Russell Lees play Nixon's Nixon, about Nixon's last late-night meeting with Kissinger before he resigned his presidency. It provides an imaginative and sometimes stunning answer to all the political handwringing and headshaking now being acted out on TV.

Shadowy light falls across a brown and somber Lincoln Sitting Room. Tall windows reveal the navy-colored nighttime sky. Lamplight reflects off the panes. There is something still and ominous about this space, something reverential and historical. It is August 7, 1974.

Tchaikovsky plays on the hi-fi. And standing center stage is Nixon, wildly conducting the phantom orchestra blaring from the speakers. In gestures as grand as the music itself, his arms and fists go flailing through the air as if he were wrestling with some malcontent god. But this is only the beginning of a long, dark night spent struggling with a decision that would forever change American politics.

There's one peculiar truth about director Mark Ramont's striking production: It does not matter one whit that James Belcher does nothing to remind us of the Nixon who lived inside our boxy, wood-grained TVs with his unforgettable profile and singular voice. What Belcher does instead is invent a totally new character who shares all the internal qualities that made Nixon the man he seemed to be. His arrogance, intelligence, cutting wit and a painfully sad-sack awareness of the cultural distance between himself and most of the other men in power on Capitol Hill are all brought to searing life in Belcher's character.

Another truth is that Paul Menzel as Kissinger looks, moves and talks so much like the real-life Kissinger that it would seem he'd grown up in New York in the same house with the man.

What is most astonishing is that the seemingly antithetical approaches to the characters work so well together for Belcher and Menzel. These are tour-de-force performances that fully engage the nuances and small pleasures in the script, of which there are many.

There is no intermission. Neither actor leaves the stage; thus, the structure is completely internal to the dialogue. Indeed, this play is gathered into a series of lovely, almost musical movements that flow into a crescendo as Nixon moves closer to his fate. While Kissinger works to persuade Nixon that resigning is the best course of action, Nixon pulls Kissinger into a kind of reverie about their past accomplishments. Kissinger acts out Mao or Brezhnev to Nixon's Nixon, as the president relives the triumphs of his presidency.

But in seconds he's careening into the bad stuff, the shameful moments of his career, such as when Kennedy "sneered" at his shoes. He comes to a brutal and acute awareness of the duplicity of politics. "The true statesman is a chameleon," says Kissinger. "You've got to be larger than life."

"But there's no back stage," says Nixon. "The mask gets stuck. You end up asking yourself, 'What color are my goddamned eyes?' "

This is a Nixon who talks with a gutter-speak honesty. He declares such things as if he were pope, "I'd grab the world by the tits and give it a whirl." He calls Kissinger "my Machiavelli with a belly." Nixon imagines himself as a man "wandering on some hellish golf course" after resigning. He continually refers to Kissinger's Nobel Prize as "that peace thing."

He's a grocer's son, without pretension, who "had to work for everything" he got. This is a president, but a disarmingly human one.

Kissinger, too, is brought down off his revered pedestal in this play. Portrayed as constantly worried about his job once Nixon resigns, this supreme statesman becomes a shrew, forever nagging at Nixon, wanting to know what Ford's plans are. He discovers the existence of an inflammatory audiotape of himself, and he's stopped cold with fear for his reputation.

But one of the loveliest moments of the night comes from a childhood memory. During his first night out on the streets of New York, after having fled Nazi Germany with his parents, Kissinger encounters a group of blond school boys. Panic-stricken, he wonders whether he should run, try to hide, or what? And then he realizes that he is in America and safe, able to go where he pleases, both literally and figuratively. It's a moving story and, given the context, a telling demonstration of the paradoxical nature of American politics.

Justin Townsend's melancholy lighting and Dennis McNabb's spare set provide strong support for these actors. And the play itself is made even more powerful by our present political climate.

Ray Hill has always been a sort of one-man show. As a modern day Socratic gadfly, he's spent years gleefully whacking the backsides of local police and politicians. He's a prison- and gay-rights activist whose perennial runs for City Council have never won him a seat. No matter: His weekly prison show on KPFT/90.1 FM has reached lots of locals, many of whom can't get out of their cells to vote, even if they were eligible.

Lately, Hill may have found an even higher calling. The gray-haired, avuncular "queen" (his word, not mine) has taken his gripes against Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes and other powerful Houstonians to the stage. Lucky for us. Hill's Lenny Bruce-style screeds against the powers that be have got to be some of the most provocative, argument-inducing, lively -- and most of all, funny -- entertainment to be found in local theater.

His latest show, Ray Hill and the Sex Police, concerns the relatively recent history of Houston's laws concerning homosexuality and sexually oriented businesses, a topic of enormous personal interest to Hill because, as he tells us, "Sex was [his] middle name, as in homo-sex-ual."

His story begins with the era in which he first came out, back at Galena Park High School. It was the '50s. Eisenhower was president, and "homosexual activity was a felony." Of course, lots of gay sex happened anyway. And Hill gives us a very amusing account of his adolescent sexual experiences which included scary encounters with the law, the kind that must have occurred in many gay teenagers' lives in those years. Of course, most people didn't resort to sexual frolics on the front porch of the First Methodist Church, but then again, most people aren't Hill. He claims to have been such a lousy prostitute that he "lost $40 in three weeks after [he] became a street hooker in downtown Houston."

Luckily, when the '60s came along, Hill found his calling at last. He and a large lesbian named Rita, whom most people referred to as Poppa Bear, formed an organization called the Promethean Society. Members wanted to change the way gay men and women were dealt with in the legal system. Their first court battle took on an outrageously absurd law. Houston police would arrest the lesbians they found in a bar called Roaring Sixties by gathering all women dressed in fly-front pants, taking them downtown and charging them with the infernal infraction of "dressing like a member of the opposite sex." Hill tells us that so many women were arrested that the society eventually paid noted Houston attorney Percy Foreman $3,500 to help them out. He did. But that wasn't the end of things.

That battle began Hill's war with Houston laws concerning gay rights and, more recently, ordinances against sexually oriented businesses. His many stories reveal a strange and sometimes Kafkaesque history that is often so absurd that you won't know whether to shake your head in amazement or laugh at the outlandishness of it all.

These stories, as directed by Joey Berner and Lisa Marie Singerman, are told by Hill on an empty stage with only a glass of water and a backpack full of dildos for help. Hill demonstrates an easy sense of timing and warm, if ironic, affection for his audience. Still, Hill is sometimes too self-congratulatory (at one point he actually calls himself an "Uncle Ray" to all of Houston's downtrodden strippers). But who else could give such a full and firsthand accounting of all the ins and outs, as it were, of the history of Houston's "sex police" and all the weirdness that phrase implies.

Nixon's Nixon runs through February 14 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, (713)52-STAGES. $21-$30.

Ray Hill and the Sex Police plays at 8 p.m. on Wednesday nights through February 24 at Bibas One's a Meal, 607 W. Gray, (713)523-2802. $8-$10.

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Lee Williams