The Watergate scandal was both the making of Martha Mitchell and her destruction. Without what her husband called “the White House horrors,” she would have been nothing more than another amusingly crass right-wing Southern “character,” a good ol’ gal with a drinking problem and a loud mouth. Instead, thanks to the party she believed in, she became a figure of pathos, perhaps even of tragedy: Openhearted as well as loose-tongued, she was like the innocent child in a fractured fairy tale, learning too late that in this version the emperor’s new clothes included a burglary kit, in which her spouse was a primary tool. So she was slapped around, medicated, sequestered from her child and from the press, and demeaned by the very Republicans she had fought to put into office. Next to her, Cassandra had it easy.
As a footnote to history, Martha still fascinates. But John Jeter’s Dirty Tricks demonstrates that all the media clips in the world can’t make a drama out of a footnote. Starting with Martha trapped at home under Secret Service surveillance, Jeter flashes back and forward in a frenetic, scattershot manner that conveys authorial anxiety rather than the heroine’s. His one giant mitigating factor is having Judith Ivey onstage to turn his Martha into myth: Twice as vivacious and four times as touchingly vulnerable as the historical Martha, Ivey’s performance is splendid enough to stand as a monument to the victims of Republican greed, a gaudier St. Gaudens that’s no less statuesque.