Meeting of the peculiar minds in 'Frost/Nixon'

theater review

Play tells the true-life story of the interviews between the disgraced president and the talk-show host looking for answers

November 27, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

To get to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, you have to drive right past the Watergate Hotel.

The complex squats like a giant, gray concrete toad near New Hampshire and Virginia avenues, where it looms both literally and figuratively over the production of Frost/Nixon being staged barely one block away.

The Watergate is visible from the Kennedy Center terrace. Stroll outside either before or after the show, and it's easy to imagine that you can peer into the windows of the former Democratic National Headquarters, where a botched burglary in 1972 eventually toppled a presidency.

Sometimes, history and art really are that close.

Even without this accident of geography, this is a compelling story - so much so that political junkies can catch both the national tour (starring Stacy Keach and running through Sunday) and the major-release film (starring Frank Langella and opening Dec. 26) in a period of less than a month.

Frost/Nixon is the story of a cat-and-mouse chase between two improbable opponents: the disgraced former U.S. chief executive Richard Nixon and the British talk-show host David Frost, who had a reputation as a playboy and dilettante. This is a man so seemingly frivolous that he picks up a strange woman by offering on the spur of the moment to let her tag along on a history-making, career-defining business trip.

Nixon was a former trial attorney with justifiable confidence in his own verbal adroitness, and he agreed to the interviews as a means of resuscitating his career. He expected Frost to toss him lighter-than-air, puffball questions that he could easily bat away or turn to his advantage.

For his part, Frost - egged on by his team of advisers - was determined to put Nixon on trial, to wrest from him the admission of wrongdoing and apology that Congress had failed to elicit.

Nixon famously crumbled under Frost's questioning. Peter Morgan's script raises provocative questions, which it can't fully resolve, about what caused the former president to throw in the towel.

In a daring move for a play about a historic and well-documented event, Morgan imagines an incident that never occurred: a drunken phone call that Nixon makes to Frost the night before the final interview.

The scene is an invention, but the insight it yields is solid enough. It would seem that both the politician and the talk-show host suffered from a sense of inferiority. Both were embattled, and both had something to prove to a legion of sneering critics.

Morgan's script raises, however delicately, the implication that Frost sabotaged himself by badly muffing the first three interviews with Nixon. It was only when his antagonist clumsily points out their psychological connection that Frost breaks through his self-imposed barriers.

Keach's portrayal unexpectedly brings out Nixon's humor and charm. He has some of the former president's trademark gestures down pat, such as a sideways slice of a forearm while making a point. But others seem a bit forced. Did Tricky Dick really hold his mouth at all times in the shape of an upside-down U? More problematically, Keach seems far too relaxed and self-assured to be quite credible in the role.

The real Nixon exuded a trapped, shifty-eyed paranoia. He was so tense that he notoriously walked the beach of his California home in a three-piece suit and tie. He seems always to be torn between the conflicting impulses of rounding on his tormentors like a caged animal with teeth bared, or jumping out of his own skin.

Actor Alan Cox not only bears a pronounced physical resemblance to Frost, he also captures the talk-show host's mild and forgiving demeanor. When Frost says, late in the show, that he disagrees with his team's assessment of the first three interviews, it's unclear whether he means its despair over his interrogation skills or its unwavering conviction that Nixon is guilty as charged.

The similarities between the real and counterfeit Frost are so thorough that the directors take the risk of airing a videotaped conversation between the actual Frost and 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace. The audience can look at the videotape, glance at the actor standing on stage and make their own comparisons. Even under a reality-check that rigorous, Cox's portrayal holds up.

Because this show is in part about the impact of the televised image, set designer Christopher Oram emphasizes that theme by installing a large screen directly above the stage.

During scene changes, the screen shows footage of London (where Frost lived), of the White House and of the California hills where the interviews took place. This footage not only helps establish where each scene happens, it provides the play with an air of authenticity, of this-is-really-happening. If one crucial locale is missing - a shot of the hotel where Nixon's downfall began - audience members at the Kennedy Center have a simple remedy.

All they have to do is step outside.

if you go

Frost/Nixon runs through Sunday at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. tomorrow; 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $25-$80. Call 202-467-4600 or go to kennedy-center.org.

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