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Playing Nixon as a Man for All Political Seasons

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."

The camera turns stage work into screen work for the performers (at the Kennedy Center, Alan Cox co-stars as Frost), which is familiar terrain for Keach. His latest feature-film role in a long screen career is as President Bush's evangelical adviser, a composite character in Oliver Stone's "W." The tone of his scenes with Josh Brolin's hyper-focused Bush grew less realistic as the takes progressed, Keach reports, raising the evergreen question of how much fidelity art owes to history.

Then again, Keach scored an early hit in the late 1960s with the unapologetically scathing "MacBird!," a highly stylized off-Broadway satire in which he played an LBJ character implicated in the assassination of JFK. At the same time, Keach saw Rip Torn playing Richard III, and doing it with shades of -- guess who? -- Richard Nixon.

The arts have taken a special shine to Nixon over the years, exploiting his singular blend of talent, ambition and paranoia in motion pictures, operas and plays. Reston, whose manuscript about the Frost-Nixon interviews (recently published as "The Conviction of Richard Nixon") was the basis for Morgan's drama, thinks this is partly due to the catharsis of the interview. President Gerald Ford might have declared that "Our long national nightmare is over" as Nixon left office, but Reston contends that the "Nixon hatred, the fear and loathing," were still at large. The Nixon-as-entertainment genre since then was enabled, he says, because post-Frost, "Nixon was rendered harmless."

Yet Nixon was always an intriguing figure and a ripe target. He was prone to crises (a word that made the title of his first memoir), was dubbed "Tricky Dick" very early in his career, of course, and groused that he wouldn't be around for universal kicking even prior to his rise and fall as president.

This iconic Nixon has proved widely durable: Keach is able to rapidly praise not just Torn's Nixonian Richard III in the 1960s, Langella's Nixon and Anthony Hopkins's Nixon in Stone's 1995 "Nixon," but also even Washington actor Ed Gero's Nixon in the play "Nixon's Nixon." As Keach says, dropping his voice to a deep, jowly register that's instantly recognizable as the man from San Clemente: "There are certain aspects of his character that are easy to do, you know?"

His own relationship with Nixon goes from being "dead against him" at first to finding him more complex and intriguing with the passage of time. "I think he had a lot more charm than Peter Morgan gives him in the play," Keach says.

That Richard Nixon's character is frequently analyzed as "Shakespearean" also appeals to Keach, who starred in the Goodman Theatre's recent Chicago production of "King Lear" that's coming in June to the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Perhaps the most discussed scene in "Frost/Nixon" is the only one Morgan entirely fictionalized, the one in which a tipsy Nixon makes a late-night phone call to a very surprised Frost. Keach says, "The theatrical nature of that event is better served by somebody who's had some taste of Shakespeare."

The reverse might be true, too. "It's going to be interesting," he muses, "to see if my Lear will have changed by virtue of having done Nixon."

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