A new historical play about a president who skirted accountability and denied the reality of his actions is given a clear and present platform in this calmly disquieting work by Peter Morgan in which the former President of the USA, Richard Nixon, locks horns with British talk show host David Frost. Based on the 1977 series of televised interviews, the play augments these with the pre-show conditions, jitters, apprehensions, and the eventually formidable preparedness of both parties. This also provides a marvelously amusing and invigorating background in which we see their self-serving agendas being formulated. That the performances by Frank Langella, as Nixon, and Michael Sheen, as Frost, under Michael Grandage’s vivid direction, are astoundingly on target as well as exhilaratingly theatrical, gives the play added resonance.
Although Morgan is noted for his superb screenplays for “The Queen” and “The Last King of Scotland,” this is his first play, and it’s a honey. With “Frost/Nixon” he again digs beneath the public/manufactured personas of two extremely well-known and recognizable figures to reveal what made them both susceptible and contentious. If the play’s arguable weakness is the necessary but slightly redundant scenes of exposition that precede the actual confrontations, its strength is in how much more psychologically supported and motivated the face-to-face Q&As do become as a result.
Threaded through the play are two narrators. There is the liberal Jim Reston (Stephen Kunken), whose response to Nixon’s resignation speech, “I just got angrier and angrier because there was no admission of guilt. No apology,” fires up his observations. And then there is Col. Jack Brennan (Corey Johnson), Nixon’s former chief of staff, who reacts this way to his boss’s resignation: “…liberal America cheered. And gloated! The trendies. The hippies. The draft-dodgers and dilettantes.” Each man is smartly primed to support the needs and the strengths of his boss and each is inclined in turn to cleverly block or divert the next move of the other.
Few historians — and with all due respect for the public’s ability to forgive and pardon, as did the succeeding President Ford — may be inclined to look back at the Watergate scandal that somehow came to define Nixon’s presidency, and say this was an honorable man. But Morgan does create a Nixon who is certainly pitiable but far from loathsome, certainly empowered by self-righteousness but far from evil. He did, however, as Reston (Stephen Kunken) reminds us, “achieve a diplomatic breakthrough with the Russians, had been the first Western leader to visit the People’s Republic of China, and presided over a period of economic stability at home.” Some may be taken aback as Langella takes this complex, surprisingly witty, and certainly humiliated man and makes him not only wrenchingly human but poignant: a really great performance.
If the 37th President of the United States was rigorously empowered by his sense of self so, indeed, was Frost. Nixon was tenuous with the media and known to perspire conspicuously under stress. Despite this, his famously televised Checker’s speech certainly buoyed his ability to gain our sympathy. Frost was at home in the medium of TV but at the time unsure of his future in it. This series of interviews was as important to Nixon to re-invent himself and re-construct a political career as it was for Frost to regain loss of prestige after his New York show was dropped. Sheen, who made a terrific impression as Tony Blair in “The Queen,” is here a marvel of insecurity cloaked in chutzpah and confidence; negligible talent but a confirmed lady’s man. He is at first seen to be barely holding his own against Nixon until the tide changes most serendipitously. This is not to imply that his performance is not as equally informed with wonderfully recognizable behavioral detail.
The anxiety-propelled business dealings behind the scenes, including the reluctance of support from the networks, Nixon’s demands, and Frost’s personal financial commitment, make up a good part of the drama. The cast includes fine supporting performances from Remy Auberjonois, Roxanna Hope, Stephen Rowe (as Mike Wallace and Swifty Lazar), Shira Gregory, Triney Sandoval, Corey Johnson, Armand Schultz and Sonya Walger. The televised event itself within the studio is quite exciting. Christopher Oram’s set and Neil Austin’s lighting are most notable their use of a bank of TV screens that show close up the faces of the opponents, particularly Langella’s expressions. While there are no surprises in the outcome, audiences will appreciate the cleverness of the tactics used by both sides, and particularly Nixon’s astute observation, “Maybe you should have been the politician. And I the rigorous interviewer.”
“Frost/Nixon,” Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, 242 West 45th Street. $76.25 to $96.25. 212-239-6200.