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'Frost/Nixon': War of Wills

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008

You don't have to be a Nixon apologist to feel a twinge of pity for the disgraced former president depicted in the solidly entertaining "Frost/Nixon." Sharp-witted and venal, courtly and manipulative, the Richard M. Nixon of Peter Morgan's fine play is a figure of peculiar contradiction, rendered human by, among other things, an almost palpable sense of the weight of the world's contempt.

The Watergate-haunted Nixon becomes the hunted again in this touring version of Morgan's work, which is residing in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through the end of the month. The play is both a fact-based and imaginary account of the improbable "get" of the ex-president by the British TV personality David Frost, whose television sit-down with him in spring 1977 sensationally and unexpectedly shattered the crust of Nixon's vanity and denial.

It's a nifty you-are-there kind of evening, smartly staged by Michael Grandage, that takes us into the head space occupied by the politically exiled Nixon, who was anxious for a way back after the traumas of Watergate that culminated with his 1974 resignation. The psyche of Frost -- regarded at the time as a glib lightweight and, in his own way, as desperate as Nixon for some new measure of respectability -- is similarly laid bare.

It comes across as an easy-to-digest Anatomy of an Interview. Morgan, the screenwriter of the Helen Mirren biopic "The Queen," directs much of his labors to pumping up the drama of the encounter, in ways intended to make the stakes and negotiations seem like those attending a superpower summit. Sometimes this becomes overkill. The secondary characters in both men's camps who address us directly throughout the show again and again underline the historic nature of the event -- not to mention the potential media coup.

Even the former president buys into the conceit of may-the-better-man-win. As Stacy Keach's Nixon forecasts the outcome for Alan Cox's Frost: "The limelight can only shine on one of us. For the other, it will be the wilderness."

Lost in the play's cat-and-mouse construct is that the series of interviews Frost was to conduct with Nixon about his time in the White House was more a game of gotcha. No doubt this Darwinian plot makes the story more palatable, particularly for those who didn't live through the Nixon years. (The play originated in London.) More to the point, Morgan's focused narrative provides a vigorous lens through which to examine two men engaged in a sensitive, public pas-de-deux, redolent of politics, personality and commerce.

The script also yields up two humdinger parts. In London and on Broadway, the role of Frost was played by Michael Sheen and Nixon by Frank Langella. They reprise their roles in the movie version, directed by Ron Howard, set to open next month. Sheen was grand on the stage, and Langella even grander -- for his Tony-winning performance, he sculpted a Nixon of exquisite mythic disturbance, a man of unsettled emotions and unsettling flaws.

In a more just world, Keach, an actor of accomplishment, would not have to contend with the mystique of another man's work. But in the Eisenhower, you sense an absence of some magic; the Nixon of the physically smaller Keach is more compressed in every sense. In the crucial scene in which an intoxicated Nixon attempts in a late-night call to seal a bond with the stunned Frost, what once felt like a tragic purging now seems a mere letting off of steam.

Still, vocally, Keach has down Nixon's sonorous arpeggio. And perhaps he's truer to a notion of Tricky Dick; a modulating of Nixonian temperament gives the character's shrewdness more effective camouflage. In providing a Frost with his own hidden resources, Cox is an able successor to Sheen. The matching of this pair of actors makes it seem now as if the interviews were on a more level playing field, and therefore a fairer fight.

When the tide turns in the sessions, and an emboldened Frost finally compels Nixon to stop filibustering and answer for his actions, there is a more compelling uptick in this version of Frost's assertiveness, of how he achieved his triumphant moment. You understand a little more clearly how he got the better of his subject.

The look of "Frost/Nixon" has not been altered for the road company. (Some members of the Broadway cast, such as Stephen Rowe, are retained, too.) The dominant feature of Christopher Oram's set remains a giant video screen, on which we see close-ups of Nixon's features as Frost, at last, bores in. With the voices of Frost's assistants still echoing in your head, urging Frost to go for the kill, you see Keach's features on the screen, the camera moving in on him ever more tightly.

In Keach's worried gaze, the thought is conveyed to a theatergoer of some great lumbering beast of the jungle, conscious of his own sorry end. It is Nixon, of course, who's consigned to the wilderness at the conclusion of the stimulating "Frost/Nixon." No matter how many backs are patted or champagne corks popped, sending him to such a desolate place offers little cause for celebration.

Frost/Nixon, by Peter Morgan. Directed by Michael Grandage. Sets and costumes, Christopher Oram; lighting, Neil Austin; composer and sound designer, Adam Cork; video, Jon Driscoll; associate director, Seth Sklar-Heyn. With Bob Ari, Meghan Andrews, Noel Velez, Antony Hagopian, Roxanna Hope. About 1 hour 50 minutes. Through Nov. 30 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org.

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