Playing Nixon as a Man for All Political Seasons

Stacy Keach, left, with Ted Koch in
Stacy Keach, left, with Ted Koch in "Frost/Nixon," which opens this week at the Eisenhower Theater. (By Carol Rosegg -- Kennedy Center)
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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 9, 2008

When touring a political play in a political year, an actor naturally studies the pros.

"Every second," says Stacy Keach of watching the real politicians. "I keep CNN on as a night light." He pulls into the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater this week to portray Richard Nixon in Peter Morgan's latest hot property, "Frost/Nixon."

The drama, which focuses on British journalist David Frost's 1977 television interviews with Nixon, revels in the nexus of politics and media, making it a neat fit on the heels of the longest, most expensive presidential race in history: Celebrity journalist vs. disgraced ex-president in a TV showdown. Even audiences who know little of Nixon and less of Frost get it, and have been bringing some of this election cycle's particular energy with them to the show.

"There's no question," says Keach, adding that his own choice for entertainment during this past election week would have been more escapist. ("I'd rather go see 'Beverly Hills Chihuahua,' " he cracks.)

Morgan has said he didn't write the play to evoke the national discontent with the Bush administration, yet similarities have been noted. James Reston Jr., who helped prepare Frost for his encounters with Nixon (and who has been rendered as a narrator in the play), particularly points to Nixon's statement that "if the president does it, it isn't illegal."

"Every time it was uttered on a Broadway stage," Reston says, "it brought the house down. And it had nothing to do with Nixon. It had to do with Bush."

Director Michael Grandage finds further political overtones, observing that when the play premiered at London's small but influential Donmar Warehouse in 2006, it seemed to be "about the downfall of Blair, interestingly enough." The once-popular Tony Blair was entering his final days as prime minister, and as "Frost/Nixon" transferred to the West End, Blair "got grilled in a very particular way," Grandage says.

The audience the next night used that confrontational Blair interview as a prism for the show. Grandage says, "You realize how well the play adapts to all political scenarios."

That's one reason no one seems worried that "Frost/Nixon" will have passed its sell-by date now that the presidential campaign is in the rearview mirror. "This play could come to Washington anytime and be popular," Keach says. (The movie version is due on screens in time for awards season, with Frank Langella reprising his Tony-winning Nixon in Ron Howard's film.)

Grandage doesn't even think the play's chief subject is politics. That's why he staged it with an element that hadn't been envisioned by the politically savvy Morgan (the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "The Queen") : a massive TV screen.

"I saw it as a play about television, about the close-up," the Donmar artistic director says from London. The Broadway production featured a bank of monitors; the touring version uses a single large screen. In both cases the close-up is used to an extraordinary degree, even in an era that features increasing use of video projections onstage.

Emphasizing the point, Grandage reminds that radio listeners thought Nixon won his 1960 presidential debate with John F. Kennedy, while TV viewers watching Nixon sweat thought otherwise. Having live actors and their broadcast images in front of an audience at once, Grandage suggests, "shows the reality, and what television does to distort that reality, even before an editor gets there to change it."

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