Playwright Peter Morgan and director Michael Grandage have more than nostalgia on their minds in "Frost/Nixon." a slick showy docudrama about the historic television interviews between David Frost and the 37th president of the United States.
The play, which opened Sunday at Broadway's Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, is an entertaining if sketchy look at the media and power, specifically presidential power and the possibility of overreaching - something that hasn't lost its relevance today.
It details how Frost, a popular British TV personality, managed to snag Nixon in 1977 for a series of interviews after his resignation from the presidency because of the Watergate scandal. And how Frost got Nixon, who was well paid for his efforts, to open up about what is described in the play as "a third-rate burglary," the break-in at the Watergate hotel and its eventual cover-up.
Morgan is something of an expert at chronicling the lives of real people - on film. He wrote the screenplay for "The Queen” about Elizabeth II and co-wrote "The Last King of Scotland," a look at African dictator Idi Amin.
So it's no surprise that "Frost/Nixon," first seen last year in a production at London's tiny Donmar Warehouse is cinematic. The play is awash in urgency, both verbally and physically. Under Grandage's whiz-bang direction, it never stops moving, particularly while setting up the ultimate confrontation between talk-show host and subject. If the description "talk-show host" sounds slightly pejorative, that is what Frost was known as in the late '70s when his career was sputtering.
Nixon too had reached a low point, brooding in his seaside California mansion after leaving the White House in disgrace in 1974. Both men needed each other - Frost to re-establish his media credentials and Nixon to repair his tattered reputation.
That they were able to reach an accommodation and respect for each other is part of Morgan's story and he is fortunate in having two fine actors to portray these wary combatants.
At first, it's a shock to see Frank Langella, one-time matinee idol on Broadway in "Dracula,” as the former president. The actor has transformed himself into an approximation if not an exact physical likeness of the weary aging chief executive.
Wearing what looks like a perpetual grimace, Langella moves with an almost simian gait and affects a surprisingly close Nixonian accent. The president was supremely conscious of his looks, insecure about his appearance, particularly on television. And Langella perfectly captures this defensive uncertainty.
Yet the actor's portrait is never cartoonish, and despite his ultimate admission, a degree of sympathy emerges for the man.
Sheen, seen as British Prime Minister Tony Blair in "The Queen," brings a boyish effervescence to Frost, a man seemingly delighted by his own celebrity and his ability to pal around with folks who are even more famous. Yet, despite his affability, he is a bit of a cipher, never quite the fully developed character that Nixon manages to become in Langella's expert hands.
"Frost/Nixon" is not a two-man show, but it might as well be. The production's nearly dozen other actors seem to exist primarily for plot exposition and scene transitions, although Stephen Rowe manages to briefly make impressions as two very different people, super-agent Swifty Lazar and television journalist Mike Wallace.
Others in the cast are primarily used to set up the compelling conversations between Frost and Nixon, which can be seen on a large television screen hanging over the Jacobs stage.
That's where the play really comes alive - juxtaposing the live confrontations with the images projected above the audience. Watching what television devastatingly does to the unraveling former president, particularly in the final interview, neatly underscores the main point "Frost/Nixon" is making. The power of TV creates pretty potent images.
Watching Frank Langella play the disgraced 37th President in Peter Morgan's Frost Nixon," it’s hard to resist inching forward in your seat to better bask in the radiant glow. It's not that he expertly apes Richard Nixon, though his velvety growl hits the right notes. It's that the Tony-winning actor conjures Nixon's sad, arrogant, buffoonish essence from jowls to toes to fingertips, which he wags like semaphore flags. Langella is, simply, a knockout. That's the right word, since this crisp and entertaining play dramatizes a 1977 TV prizefight between the post-Watergate Nixon and interviewer David Frost. The British talk-show host is credibly embodied by Michael Sheen, recently onscreen as Tony Blair in Morgan's “The Queen."
Like that film, the author's docudrama at the Jacobs Theatre opens a window on a sliver of history in a believable and seamless work made of actual facts (including verbatim transcripts) and pure fantasy. Morgan's made these docudramas a cottage industry, and he's good at them.
Both Frost and Nixon saw the 1977 interviews as a chance to rebuild reputations, and the play - set before, during and after the tapings - covers behind-the-scenes strategizing by the respective teams, brought to life by a fine supporting cast.
Michael Grandage, a British director making his Broadway debut, stages "Frost/Nixon" with confidence and clarity. The production is so slick, you almost - but not quite forgive
Morgan's overdependence on narration to advance the plot. Efficient? Yes. But it is as dramatic as a guided museum tour (“Here, the painter's brushstrokes…” ZZZZZZ!). It helps that Jim Reston (Stephen Kunken, in a solid perfonnance), an author and Frost adviser, does most of the narrating. Reston is the one who gave Frost the ammo needed to get Nixon to admit, "I let the American people down."
Sheen and Langella re-create this winner-take-all climactic clash with laser-beam intensity. Even though we know what's coming, it's still thrilling. The theater was so hushed, you could hear people exhaling.
The story plays out on a sleek but spare stage, over which hangs a grid of 36 TV sets. As the interview takes place, it is aired simultaneously larger than life. There, in extreme, if excruciating, close-up, Nixon's face freezes, as if behind a pattern of prison bars. It's an affecting image for a tale of two men: one a showbiz fast talker and social animal made for TV; the other a socially inept and corrupt politician undone by it, and, of course, by himself.
There is nothing in the theater quite like a prize fight – the ancient Greek protagonist/ antagonist, winner-take-all with, as Richard Milhous Nixon jocularly threatened David Frost just before their historic TV interviews, "no holds barred."
The ring is Peter Morgan's play "Frost/Nixon," which opened yesterday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, and the urbane but deadly combatants are, on our left, Michael Sheen (Frost) and, on our right, Frank Langella (Nixon).
We know who won. It is the job of the actors and the director (referee, perhaps?) Michael Grandage to make it interesting. And do they ever.
You watch with the kind of fascinated delight rare in the theater as Langella and Sheen go at one another with the dedicated skill of a Muhammad Ali and a Joe Frazier.
It is 1977. Three years earlier, a disgraced President Nixon had resigned, later to be pardoned by his successor, President Gerald Ford.
He had never admitted blame for any coverup following the Watergate breakin, nor had he admitted or apologized to the American people for any abuse of executive privilege.
Now the British TV talk-show host David Frost, after beating Mike Wallace and CBS in a bidding war, persuaded Nixon - for the sum of $600,000 – to submit to a series of TV grillings.
Nixon was happy enough with the payday, but, more important, he and his loyalists felt this was the golden opportunity to salvage both his reputation and his heritage, and maybe even get him back into the game as a political player.
The more so as Frost was generally regarded as a lightweight, puffball interviewer - something of a playboy whose own once-glittering, now-spiraling career called for a little redemption, and whose bank account could do with a little bolstering.
Morgan (Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "The Queen") has produced a fictional docudrama of the circumstances and outcome of the interviews, which reverberated in the nation's psyche and received the largest viewership ever for a news program.
Morgan picks his way through history with the loving care of a man stepping through a minefield. He embroiders where he can; he sticks to the record where he must. Best of all, he offers enthrallingly convincing, larger-than-caricature portraits of his battling heroes.
Grandage puts the piece onstage with video-style grace, as if it were the partly imagined backstory of a movie documentary, which it actually is.
This all-important impression is endorsed by telling use of a bank of 36 small TV monitors that coalesce into one screen image - itself so cleverly fragmented that, while a living presence, it doesn't demand attention away from the live actors.
So both Morgan, with his totally credible script, and Grandage, with his masterly fluid staging, have done an expert job.
But all the expertise in the world - including a fine crew of admirable backup actors - is going to be blown away if the two top guns fail in their missions.
Of course they don't - the show would not have jetted to Broadway from London's estimable but small Donmar Warehouse if they had.
Michael Sheen (best remembered for his effusive Tony Blair in "The Queen" and perhaps his bouncy Mozart in Broadway's "Amadeus") has caught precisely Frost's blazingly evasive smile sliding off his face, his shrewd camaraderie, and his battened-down insecurities.
The great Langella looks rather more like a wasted Ed Sullivan than Nixon, but he has the voice down to a gravelly insinuation of just the right Nixon gravitas, and, as much as Sheen, he is a virtuoso of body language.
Television mows down a titan in "Frost/Nixon," the briskly entertaining new play by Peter Morgan about the 1977 face-off between its title characters, the British talk show host (as in David) and the former American president (as in Richard M.). But let it be proclaimed, with drums and fanfare, that theater decisively trumps television in the production that opened last night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater.
Most of the credit for this victory belongs to a truly titanic performance from the man playing the famously sweaty victim of a cool medium. That's Frank Langella, whose portrayal of Nixon is one of those made-for-the-stage studies in controlled excess in which larger-than-life seems truer-to-life than merely life-size ever could.
No screen, big or small, could accommodate such showy grandeur. And it's telling that when this production - which recreates the story behind the widely watched television interviews between Nixon and Mr. Frost (the excellent Michael Sheen) - projects Mr. Langella's image onto the bank of monitors at the back of the stage, his face registers as that of some grotesque mythic creature in uncomfortable captivity.
This tension between camera and subject italicizes a central theme of "Frost/Nixon," a British import staged, with the momentum of a ticking-bomb thriller and the zing of a boulevard comedy, by Michael Grandage, the artistic director ofthe Donmar Warehouse in London. Structured as a prize fight between two starkly ambitious men in professional crisis, "Frost/Nixon" makes it clear that the competitor who controls the camera reaps the spoils.
It should be stated that Mr. Morgan, whose more sophisticated screenplay for the movie "The Queen" also dealt with the triumph of spin over substance, is guilty of spelling out his message too bluntly. "The first and greatest sin of television is that it simplifies, diminishes," he has one of his characters say. The same accusation could be leveled against "Frost/ Nixon." The play asks us to take on faith Frost's understanding of "the power of the close-up," instead of giving us real evidence of his mastery of the medium. Much of what happens behind the scenes, as Frost's team prepares to take on the notoriously slippery Nixon, has an improbably naive, college studentish air. ("Hey, guys, let's put on a show to humiliate Tricky Dick.")
And to enhance the play's nail-biting quotient, which hinges on whether Frost will induce Nixon to apologize for his role in Watergate, Mr. Morgan has blithely rejiggered and rearranged facts and chronology.
(To appreciate how wide some of the discrepancies are, read "The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews" the coming memoir by James Reston Jr. - who appears as a character in this play, convincingly played by Stephen Kunken - about his experience as one of Frost's advisers on the interviews.)
Mr. Morgan, a specialist in fact-based fiction for screen and television ("The Queen," "The Last King of Scotland" and, for British television, "The Deal"), has spoken of "the difference between accuracy and truth" in eliciting private drama from public records. But here he sometimes seems to be forsaking accuracy less in the pursuit of truth than of conventional entertainment value.
This means that while Nixon scholars may gnash their teeth, average theatergoers are likely to have a good time. The structure of "Frost/Nixon" - a time-skipping, globe-spanning montage of narrative scenes and expository asides, largely delivered by Mr. Kunken as Mr. Reston and Corey Johnson as Jack Brennan, Nixon's top aide de camp - makes more for lively breadth than penetrating depth. (Christopher Oram's set and Neil Austin's terrific lighting help keep the play fast and fluid.)
But it does allow two superb actors to explore the racing, anxious minds behind two much-photographed faces. Admittedly Mr. Sheen has the less rewarding job. One ofthe brightest actors of the London stage, who has presented his own searing take on the pathology of power in the title role of the Donmar's production of Camus's "Caligula," Mr. Sheen is best known for his sly, multidimensional portraits of Prime Minister Tony Blair in "The Queen" and "The Deal."
As written by Mr. Morgan, the character of David Frost offers fewer complexities to snack on. He is presented as a bit of a celebrity bimbo, a vain man who lives for the perfect table in the best restaurant amid A-list companions. What makes him worthy of concentrated attention here is the raw hunger of his ambition and the insecurity that feeds it.
Though his surface remains relentlessly, well, superficial and upbeat, this character brims with the self-doubts and need for approval that keep him in motion. Look for the barely perceptible flinch, like that of someone pricked by a needle, that Mr. Sheen produces every time the term "talk show host" crops up.
This is the mien of a man afraid of being pegged as a fraud and determined not to let that happen. This makes him the ideal listener in the show's high point, a late-night phone call Frost receives from a drunken Nixon, on the eve of the last of their series of interviews.
The moment is one of the few in the play that is pure fabrication. Yet it rings ineffably true. It makes us feel, rather than only register intellectually, the extent to which these two mismatched men are emotional mirrors.
Throughout the production Mr. Langella's Nixon has come across as a man of quick intellect, maudlin sentimentality, vulgar wit and studied social reflexes that have never acquired the semblance of natural grace. You are always aware of someone who struggles to conceal not only a defensive self-consciousness but also a cancerous anger and fear.
That's what comes to the surface, like black bilious lava, in the phone-call scene. And it's one of those great moments, which only theater affords, when acting takes on the tidal force of an operatic aria.
From the moment he steps onstage, with his hunched walk and lumbering step, Mr. Langella has avoided the obvious route of Rich Little-style impersonation of one of the most impersonated figures in history. What he delivers instead is an interpretation that, without imitation, still captures and exaggerates Nixon's essential public traits: the buttered-gravel voice, the scowling smile, the joviality that seemed to contain an implicit threat.
The friend with whom I saw the play asked me afterward if I had noticed how much better Mr. Langella's Nixon impersonation became as the show progressed. Mr. Langella's performance had not changed, but by evening's end it had eclipsed the familial photographic image of the real man. Like Helen Mirren's understated Elizabeth II in "The Queen," this overstated Nixon seems destined forever to blend into and enrich the perceptions of its prototype for anyone who sees it.
If someone described a play dealing with the incestuous intertwining of politics and show business, checkbook journalism, accountability in government and a U.S. president obstinately out of touch with the world and dialoguing with himself, you might guess the timeframe is now. Guess again. Examining the machinations behind British talkshow host David Frost's 1977 TV interviews with Richard Nixon, Peter Morgan's "Frost/Nixon" knowingly amplifies the episode through a contemporary prism. A hit in London, Michael Grandage's lucid production burnishes the play's merits as stage writing, but there's no question about the potency of Frank Langella and Michael Sheen's blazing performances.
In films like "The Queen," "The Last King of Scotland" and "Longford," Morgan has carved a niche for himself by getting personal with power, creating smart entertainment by exploring the vulnerable human characters behind public figures. His first stage play turns the potentially dry docudrama of a disgraced former president's unexpected public apology into lively sociopolitical reflection.
If it feels like a two-character piece padded into a multirole play with too much expository direct address from twin narrators (one in each camp), the rich shadings given to those two characters are no small compensation. The complexity of the portraits of two adversaries equally hungry for public redemption and the potential for further development of background and supporting players suggest the material might benefit from the more intimately detailed canvas of the bigscreen. (Universal acquired rights to the play in September, with Morgan scheduled to adapt for director Ron Howard.)
While Nixon was controversially pardoned for his role in the Watergate scandal by successor Gerald Ford and was buried with full honors in 1994, for many the former commander in chief and his administration stood for greed, treachery, moral corruption and the sad effectiveness of lies in public office. That history might make some audiences bristle at Morgan's humanizing approach, mirrored in Langella's riveting depiction of Nixon as a brooding, funny, tragic giant of a man whose powerful charisma and authority are underscored by just a hint of malevolence.
There's no attempt to condone the wrongdoing that hastened the 37th U.S. president's exit from office, but the play mines poignancy from the downfall of a man robbed of his purpose when his political life was severed.
In his infamous Checkers speech 25 years before the Frost interviews, Nixon became a pioneer among American politicians in the use of television to win over a skeptical public. The great irony is that the same medium ultimately was the instrument of his chastening.
While in 1977 Nixon craved a platform to cleanse his image and reboot his political life, Morgan posits that Frost was no less in need of a rebirth. His New York show had been dropped by the network and he was reduced to doing celebrity puff chat on Australian TV. Sheen deftly cloaks this hunger beneath a mask of playboy insouciance, puffing on a cigar, sipping champagne and flirting with a fellow passenger as he flies into Los Angeles to negotiate terms with Nixon.
Nailing Frost as just a notch or two above Paris Hilton, one character quotes a radio profile: "What made you exceptional, they said -- was that you seemed to have achieved great fame without possessing any discernible quality." While his coup de grace with Nixon is largely revealed to be a lucky break based on someone else's research, it's to Sheen's credit that he manages to embrace the lightweight aspects of the journalist yet subtly outline his instinctual prowess as a television animal. This puts the contest between Frost and the more intellectually dexterous Nixon on equal footing.
The behind-the-scenes dealings are fascinating as Frost scrambles to lock in a network commitment and secure sponsors, putting up his own money to bankroll the seemingly doomed endeavor and pay Nixon's fat fee. But the on-air showdown is the juiciest part of the drama, played out in massive closeup on the bank of vintage TV screens positioned high on Christopher Oram's sleek wood-paneled set and used at other times for scene-setting footage.
Although the outcome of the interviews is known, Morgan has injected his chronicle with the suspense of a boxing match, with Frost's research team on the sidelines sweating as the first three rounds go to the supremely evasive Nixon. The TV screens are used to thrilling effect as the devastation of his entrapment plays out over Langella's face.
Morgan has a frustrating tendency to spell out salient points that any audience should be attentive enough to deduce for itself -- having his narrators step forward, for example, to identify key moments when first Frost and then Nixon seem beaten, or articulating Frost's savvy at skating the line between politics and showbiz when we've seen him in action.
But in an otherwise thinly developed gallery of peripheral characters, the two figures delivering those narrative assists -- cynical liberal intellectual Jim Reston and Nixon's loyal former chief of staff, Col. Jack Brennan -- are sharply drawn by Stephen Kunken and Corey Johnson, respectively.
Making his Broadway debut, Donmar Warehouse a.d. Grandage has crafted a lean and dynamic production that never puts a foot wrong. And while it's easy to imagine the play seeming more fragile with less resourceful actors, Sheen and Langella could hardly be better.
With his bouffant hair, tight '70s slacks and bulging tummy wrapped in figure-hugging shirts, Sheen is an unlikely candidate here to register as sexy, yet the innate charms of his Frost at all times outweigh his questionable wardrobe (nice work again from Oram) and convictions. He brilliantly underplays both the character's smarmy brashness and his faint air of desperation.
Sheen's nuanced work as Tony Blair in "The Queen" was vastly underappreciated amid all the hosannas heaped upon Helen Mirren, and he risks a similar slight against the formidable Langella. Grandage nonetheless maintains a keen balance that serves both actors.
He may not physically resemble Nixon, but Langella illuminates the man in ways that go far deeper than mimicry. He does the hunched shoulders, the pouting underbite, the ambling, simian gait, the ceaseless gesticulating and the rumbling voice -- even the trademark V sign. But the actor's insights take up where most imitations leave off in a performance that's mesmerizing in its command.
In Morgan's most fanciful invention, a monologue delivered by Langella with penetrating flashes of wounded hubris, Nixon calls Frost in his hotel room one night before the final interview after a couple drinks too many. Nixon ventures the opinion that both men are the victims of snobbery, driven by the desire to prove their critics wrong.
"If we allow ourselves a glimpse into that shadowy place we call our soul, isn't that why we're here?" ponders Nixon. That aching need for validation that feeds almost all fame is the force that makes Morgan's play tick.