Riveting 'Frost/Nixon': When Needy Met Seedy

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 23, 2007

NEW YORK -- To experience "Frost/Nixon" without Michael Sheen would be unfortunate. To imagine it without Frank Langella is impossible.

Langella plays Richard M. Nixon to Sheen's David Frost in this juicy drama about their famous 1977 series of television encounters, and it proves to be one of the most remarkable Broadway performances in years. Not that Langella simply gets the awkward mannerisms right: the cartoonishly husky voice, the hunched shoulders, the impatient hands.

It's that he manages to make of this disgraced former president, the only Oval Office occupant ever to resign, a figure of authentic pathos.

Who knew an audience could be made to feel Nixon's pain, that his sense of isolation and humiliation -- and ultimately, his tacit acknowledgment of his crimes -- might give him a claim on compassion?

The play enabling this fascinating exploration of this truly odd man, which opened last night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, is worth the price for Langella alone. The bonus is it also allows you access to the deftly self-infatuated impression Sheen offers of Frost, the seemingly out-of-his-depth British talk-show host who paid Nixon $600,000 for the rights to this first television interview after the Watergate scandal ended his presidency.

Playwright Peter Morgan, who also wrote the screenplay for "The Queen," in which Sheen played British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and co-wrote the screenplay for "The Last King of Scotland," supplies as the climactic core of "Frost/Nixon" re-enactments of portions of the interviews. (The wall behind the stage is adorned with a panel of TV screens, arranged in grid.)

Morgan's specialty is topical infotainment. As in "The Queen," he takes a potent political event and turns it into personality-driven psychodrama. It's an attempt to gin up real events, yes, but as with his portrait of Queen Elizabeth, his rendering of Nixon radiates empathy.

Most of the evening's preliminaries, however, are acts of Morgan's imagination. These include reconstructions of the Frost and Nixon camps' negotiations over the topics to be covered -- only one of the several hours would be devoted to Watergate -- and the strategy sessions that prepare the two men for battle.

Indeed, a boxing match is Morgan's facile metaphor of choice, and if anything diminishes this delectable evening, it is an over-reliance on the kinds of narrative cliches characteristic of contrived news-writing. The play provides a pair of narrators, one from each camp: a fierce Nixon antagonist, the journalist and author Jim Reston (Stephen Kunken), who is working for Frost; and for Nixon, a bulldog of a loyalist, Army officer Jack Brennan (Corey Johnson).

Their roles, it seems, are not only to represent the polar extremes of attitudes about the ex-president, but also to eliminate any possibility that we might conclude the Frost-Nixon interviews are just an intriguing footnote to one of the country's more traumatic political chapters. Thus Kunken's Reston impresses upon Frost (and us) how desperate the American people are for an apology from Nixon, and Brennan has to cite chapter and verse about how it was the liberal establishment that drove Nixon from office.

Context is no doubt essential -- especially for those who did not live through Watergate -- but Morgan takes the reductive sermonizing route far too often. When, for instance, Frost finally gets the better of Nixon, driving him to a devastating moment of introspection and confession, the playwright has Reston break in with breathless commentary: This was no ordinary coup, he tells us. The look on Nixon's face was so galvanizing that "the rest of the project and its failings would not only be forgotten, they would totally cease to exist."

Though heated overstatement weakens the production, it by no means neutralizes its impact. Director Michael Grandage, artistic head of London's Donmar Warehouse, where the play originated, elicits invigorating work from the cast, starting with supporting actors like Kunken and Stephen Rowe, who plays the irrepressible Swifty Lazar, Nixon's agent on the deal.

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