Monday, April 09, 2007

And Now, For Something Completely Different

"Frost/Nixon" at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, April 5, 2007

In what is shaping up as a great season for straight plays on Broadway, the latest export from London has arrived, Peter Morgan's "Frost/Nixon."

Having only heard of the excellent reviews from the London production, I was anxious to see the retelling of how the interviews David Frost conducted with former President Richard Nixon came to be. I vaguely remember when the interviews aired in the 1970s. At the time, I had little interest in the subject. Mr. Morgan has done a splendid job of transforming these events into a lively evening of theatre. (Spoiler alert - is that possible with an historically-based play?)

As David Frost, the ever-talented Michael Sheen brings all the champagne dreams of a talk-show host trying to morph himself into a serious journalist. His Frost is living life in the fast lane, and understandably, is reluctant to give all of that up. He's a man wanting to have his cake and eat it too! To paraphrase a fellow blogger, there's a reason why the title is Frost/Nixon and not Nixon/Frost. Early on, Frost's goal was scoop Mike Wallace who was the pre-eminent master of the "get" interview at the time. Risking everything from personal reputation to personal fortune, Frost beat him.

But this is not meant to slight Frank Langella's performance as Richard Nixon in any way. Taking on such a formidable historical figure is fraught with possibilities, both good and bad. I do think Mr. Morgan's version of Mr. Nixon comes off a bit buffoonish at times, but remember, it's only a play and meant to be entertaining. Mr. Langella, in a similar fashion to Anthony Hopkins' dead-on portrayal of Richard Nixon, doesn't stoop to impersonate or mimic the trademark images - the ski-slope nose, the flapping jowls. He does alter his voice a bit, which when I closed my eyes sounded more like Walter Cronkite than Nixon, but it's still effective as he matches the timbre and pattern of the late President's speech habits. He captures the Nixon who was trying to re-brand himself after his disgrace, and regain his place of respect among the retired heads of state. From that end, he did achieve a certain level of success, reminding the viewers that aside from the Watergate scandal, his presidency was quite successful in several areas.

Mr. Morgan provides very interesting drama between Frost and Nixon once the interviews are actually underway. In the first three sessions Mr. Nixon maintains full control, driving the conversation to his own advantage, hardly allowing Frost to get a word in, edgewise. On the eve of the final taping, Frost receives a disarming phone call from Nixon. It's here that we see how clearly each man is trying to rise above his current reputation and how important success in this interview is to achieve that. During this call, Nixon effectively tosses down the gauntlet at Frost, Nixon feeling he is well on his way to his own salvation at Frost's expense. It is this period when Frost's assistants/advisers find previously unexplored transcripts of the White House telephone tapes revealing Nixon's foreknowledge of the break-in.

It is here when Nixon states: "When the President does it, it's not illegal." This was the fatal flaw in Nixon's administration - that he felt he was above the law. (I can't help wondering if our current administration has bothered to look at recent history in order to avoid making the mistakes of the past. Somehow I doubt it.)

The interaction in the final session is riveting. Now I want to find the original recordings and see them to compare!

Director Michael Grandage shows a firm and clever hand in this production. He updates the cheesy TV aura of the 1970s, matching it to the intensity and pace of the play. Christopher Oram's sets and costumes capture the shag and polyester gabardine days of the period, nicely enhanced by Neil Austins lighting.

No comments: