'Frost/Nixon:' The Rise and Fall of Celebrity
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by Jan Nargi
Written by Peter Morgan; directed by Michael Grandage; set and costume designer, Christopher Oram; lighting designer, Neil Austin; composer and sound designer, Adam Cork; video designer, Jon Driscoll; hair and wig designer, Richard Mawbey; associate director, Seth Sklar-Heyn
Cast in order of appearance:
Richard Nixon, Stacy Keach; Jim Reston, Brian Sgambati; David Frost, Alan Cox; Jack Brennan, Ted Koch; Evonne Goolagong, Meghan Andrews; John Birt, Antony Hagopian; Monolo Sanchez, Noel Velez; Swifty Lazar/Mike Wallace, Stephen Rowe; Caroline Cushing, Roxanna Hope; Bob Zelnick, Rob Ari
Tickets: Ticketmaster at 1-800-982-2787, or www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com
When British talk show host David Frost conducted his now historic interviews with former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, the two men had a lot in common. Nixon had gone from his landslide re-election in 1972 to impeachment, resignation, and ignominy, branded a crook and a criminal for his involvement in the Watergate break-in and cover-up - despite his unconditional pardon by his successor Gerald Ford. Frost had experienced his own fall from grace, losing his network talk show in America and becoming known more for his playboy partying than his salient reporting. The duo's unlikely pairing for four 90-minute one-on-ones in 1977 resurrected Frost's flagging career and humanized a once powerful American icon who had become a tragic victim of his own political ambitions and insecurities, a sad cartoon whose noteworthy accomplishments would now be forever tainted by his incomprehensible misdeeds.
Frost/Nixon is first-time British playwright Peter Morgan's behind-the-scenes look at the cat-and-mouse maneuverings that somehow landed the flamboyant Frost the celebrated interviews in the first place and then almost miraculously managed to elicit the stunning on-air apology by Nixon to the American people. The play shifts from the frenetic "war rooms" of each camp in which teams of advisors and handlers gird their properties for battle to the intimacy of two overstuffed leather chairs where the wary opponents parry and thrust their way through the investigative minefield, growing more and more respectful of each other's skills as they move cautiously along. Frost comes to see Nixon as a man looking for redemption while Nixon surmises Frost to be a man with integrity he can trust.
Stacy Keach as Nixon and Alan Cox as Frost give understated but ultimately immense performances as flawed men who want - and need - desperately to win their verbal fencing match. Polar opposites in one regard - Nixon the socially awkward megalomaniac who sweats in the spotlight, Frost the hedonistic charmer who thrives in front of the cameras - the two larger than life figures nonetheless see a bit of themselves in each other: self-made men whose hardscrabble childhoods pushed them to excess in adulthood. As the interviews progress, each actor almost imperceptibly sheds his character's cool facade, becoming more and more the real man behind the public mask. In the final moments, when a close-up of Keach as Nixon is projected on the giant television monitor suspended above the simple living room-style studio set, the effect is riveting. A combination of pain and perplexity is etched on his face. With that one stunning visual, Keach and Nixon seem to have become one.
An able cast of supporting players helps raise the stakes for this momentous interview and gives an insider look at just how easily the entire program could have imploded. Brian Sgambati as prolific anti-Nixon biographer Jim Reston, Antony Hagopian as Frost's producer John Birt, and Bob Ari as respected American reporter Bob Zelnick crackle as they prep and prod their celebrity host to take this interview to Nixon's jugular. Ted Koch as Nixon's Chief of Staff Jack Brennan is suitably loyal and protective while Stephen Rowe as his Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar negotiates deals in a manner worthy of his nickname. Roxanna Hope as Frost's girlfriend du jour Caroline Cushing is attractive but also smart window dressing.
The question that still resonates for Americans old enough to remember the Senate Watergate hearings is the one that Frost used to open his landmark interviews: "Why didn't you destroy the tapes?" The fact that Nixon didn't - and that he somehow connected those incriminating recordings to a greater glory instead of to his ultimate demise - is the essence of this great American tragedy.
As Frost/Nixon illustrates so fascinatingly, Frost may have delivered Nixon's apology to the American people. But he fell short of delivering an answer.