NEW YORK (AP) — Big surprise: politics is a dirty game, and many political operatives are rough-and-tumble behind the scenes. Pat Nixon, wife to former President Richard Nixon, apparently learned this the hard way.

Playwright Douglas McGrath has skillfully imagined Pat's early, ladylike feistiness as Nixon's loyal political partner in his spirited new play, "Checkers."

Anthony LaPaglia and Kathryn Erbe are quite effective as the Nixons, in the world premiere of McGrath's fascinating drama that opened Thursday night at the Vineyard Theatre.

The couple is primarily shown during the 1952 presidential campaign, when Nixon was Eisenhower's vice presidential running mate. Together, Pat and Dick battle the hostile media and backstabbing Republican political operatives, after a secret campaign slush fund is discovered, with Pat preferring a behind-the-scenes role passing out campaign buttons while Dick gives speeches. The play starts and ends in 1966, when they argue about whether Nixon should make a run at the presidency.

A series of rapid-fire scenes, with puppet-string-pulling GOP operatives situated high atop the set, are tightly directed by Terry Kinney. The 1952 vignettes take place during a whistlestop train campaign, as, via clever projections and swift scene changes, Kinney zooms from train car to hotel rooms to coffee shops, and always back to the train.

LaPaglia is accurately bull-doggish and defensive as Nixon, who's fighting to stay on the ticket and anxiously awaiting a much-delayed, expectedly reassuring phone call from Ike. With shoulders hunched and brows lowered, LaPaglia deploys mannerisms and speech patterns eerily reminiscent of the real Nixon, who's described in the play by Eisenhower as being an "odd combination of ruthless and insincere."

Erbe is loyal and spunky as Pat, perkily coiffed in period outfits that create a modestly stylish, mid-20th-century ambience. Her skillful performance includes several emotional speeches in which Pat buoys up her at-times despairing husband.

She reminds him why she and the public admire him, and tries to prevent him from going negative in public by wisely counseling, "But resentment is not a good governing ideal." Erbe affectingly shows Pat's inner anguish during Dick's unprecedented 1952 Checkers speech, in which he details their personal finances on TV in a bid for public sympathy.

Lewis J. Stadlen is brusque, vulgar and a real scene-stealer as Nixon's close advisor, Murray Chotiner. Chotiner is as Machiavellian as the slimy, crude GOP staffers, portrayed with relish by Robert Stanton and Kevin O'Rourke. They intensely dislike Nixon, referring to him disdainfully as "that human oil stain." About the rudest thing Pat says about these operatives is, "I hate these people. They're worse than Democrats."

McGrath's compelling play, full of candid language, casual ethnic slurs and a behind-the-political-scenes feel, is ultimately about the delicate goodness and waning idealism of Pat.

In the final scene, when Dick makes a life-changing decision, Erbe makes some intensely bitter remarks about being a political wife. She leaves us with an indelible image of a woman who will continue on her chosen path, indomitable even in heartbreak.