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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Frost/Nixon — New City Stage Company at Adrienne Theatre

Frost300 Peter Morgan is as skillful at portraiture as he is at playwriting. In various movies and plays — “The Queen,” “The Audience,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “Frost/Nixon” — he has taken historical figures of the day, set them in pivotal moments  of their lives, and illuminated both the personality that becomes his lead character and the situation with which  that person is dealing.

Morgan’s particular interest is former British prime minister Tony Blair, about whom he is said to have a major work brewing. Blair was a focal figure in “The Queen,” but the two  people Morgan is best known for bringing to the stage and screen are England’s Elizabeth II and the President of the United States from 1969 to 1974, Richard Nixon.

Nixon is easily one of the most fascinating leaders of recent times. His accomplishments would make rivals blush. His competence and skill have few parallels among American presidents. Just look at the incumbent and his predecessor.  Although never deeply  loved by the public, and possibly even unpopular, he was elected President twice, and in 1972 by an historical margin. Two actors, Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella, have received Oscar nominations for playing Nixon, a tribute of sorts shared only by Abraham Lincoln. He is the subject of many books and plays and will most likely continue to be one of the most studied Presidents in American history.

Because Richard Nixon is inherently tragic. With all of his administrative, managerial, political, and statesmanlike gifts, he could not control paranoia that led to an enemy’s list or, as Peter Morgan, states it in “Frost/Nixon,” hubris that he thought set him apart from others and put him and the Presidency above the law. Richard Nixon squandered his generally successful Presidency and his greatest period of public affection — Yes, of course I remember Vietnam, Cambodia, and protests, but I opt for context, proportion, and perspective. — by actively taking part in the cover-up of a silly, unnecessary, and most importantly, bungled break-in of the Democrat National Committee offices at Watergate prior to the 1972 election. He aided and abetted a felony and, by extension, was liable to prosecution as a felon.

A small and sorry act brings down a titan. It is the echo of history. Beyond the law, journalism and the tone of 70s, a time of protest, a time when much was scrutinized and considered suspicious, a “rip-off” deserving disdain and dishonor, worked against Richard Nixon. In “Frost/Nixon,” Morgan has Nixon say, “Other Presidents have done worse.” It rings as a hollow line, but that doesn’t make it less true. Richard Nixon was a victim of his own ambition, his own lack of confidence that the office he held by election was secure from critics, opposing politicians, the press, etc. What else could have even driven henchmen, people close to Nixon, to plan and perpetrate a break-in and robbery of a rival party that had no chance of defeating him in that particular election year? Nixon, in life and in Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon,” claims loyalty was his motive in the cover-up and stonewalling that followed the Watergate debacle. That only adds to the pity.

Or takes away from it. One of the best and smartest traits of “Frost/Nixon” is it shows a man who both rates pity and is unworthy of it. He is tragic because his own actions caused his downfall. He can be pitied because of all the good that could have occurred during a war-free, détente-active second administration. Yet, the reason for his demise is so petty, so beneath the man and his level of guile, that pity seems too generous, too valuable to waste on one who was ultimately foolish and convinced his power outweighed public statute or that he had to stand behind people to did something stupid in his name.

Morgan delves into this in “Frost/Nixon,” a play that rivets in its detail and shows Nixon both at the time of his August 8, 1974 resignation speech and in a series of 1977 interviews conducted by television talk host David Frost who leads Nixon to say what no high-watt newsperson, biographer, or Senate panel could elicit previously, that when he learned about the Watergate break-in and who was involved, he participated and even led the cover-up.

Nixon’s admission to Frost was considered ironic. Frost, as Morgan notes, was lambasted by the Mike Wallaces and other journalists of the world who, out of jealousy and  professional pride, loathed the idea that Frost, a lightweight with no known political conviction, a lifelong broadcaster who took host and emcee jobs but never probed and pried with any depth, would be the one who, by outbidding the pack, would have the first and most intense crack at Richard Nixon on national television.

Frost, the personality, they thought, would do one of his typical conversational, non-controversial  chat shows. Nixon, some feared, including characters in Morgan’s play, would look charming, be persuasive, and regain some the luster lost in the Watergate disgrace.

No one, least of all Richard Nixon or his aides, expected David Frost to garner one of the headlines of the decade, Nixon’s admission that he had done wrong and acted illegally and ill-advisedly in the Watergate matter. Frost coaxed the confession and apology his producers, per Morgan, said all of the America awaited.

Irony. Irony. Irony. “Frost/Nixon” is loaded with it, and all hail the play and Morgan for that.

All hail also to the New City Stage Company for its compelling production of “Frost/Nixon.” Dan Olmstead, a perennial stalwart among local actors, shows his fine skill at characterization and attention to nuance in a portrayal that displays Nixon in various modes from relaxed to an intense combatant seeking to maintain the upper hand against Frost. Olmstead even captures Nixon’s posture, his way of leaning forward, and is shrewd about the way he presents Nixon’s jokes, which no one gets. Nixon, the character, always has to tell people when he’s kidding or trying to be funny. Olmstead also gets Nixon’s voice right, at least in pace and timbre. His performance would be admirable in any circumstance, but it is especially laudable given how familiar the audience is with Richard Nixon, his look and his sound.

Russ Widdall, another whose canon of work over the years should be a source of pride, doesn’t resemble David Frost but conveys his bounciness, his taste for the lavish and the large, his risk-taking, and, most of all, the spirit and attitude that made him so successful on television. On three continents. You see Frost’s cheery disposition and optimism, his love of being in the center of a program or party, and a serious side when his ambition and desire not be bested, not to be outmaneuvered or outplayed, are put to the test.

Tim Dugan, Jered McLenigan, and J Hernandez add to the excellence of the New City  Stage production, directed with an eye towards a natural flow of events, by Aaron Cromie.

Because of the leads, and the credibility of the supporting cast, the New City Stage audience gets to hear and see all of the meat with which Peter Morgan packs his play.

Morgan doesn’t take sides. That’s for the characters to do.

The playwright takes pains to show Frost and Nixon as total people. He focuses on a specific time and an event, but he recognizes that both of his title characters have virtues and faults. These men are leaders in their field, television in the 1970s becoming as potent as politics in creating celebrity and people of influence.  (In our century, it has, alas, surpassed politics in forging opinion.) By depicting Frost and Nixon in their many, and at times contradictory, facets, Morgan shows an appreciation not only for the men whose essence he is conveying but for the difficulty of the obstacles , personal and professional, they have had to conquer.

Morgan is fair to Nixon and Frost, his fairness to Nixon perhaps not being to the liking of everyone who might see “Frost/Nixon.”

No matter. The character of Jim Reston, especially as played by J Hernandez, will speak amply and eloquently for the folks who want only to see Nixon excoriated. Morgan does give Reston a telling bit that takes place when the reporter, bitter against the resigned President, meet for the first time. Hernandez, and Sam Sherburne, as Bob Zelnick, play the scene perfectly. (Reston and Zelnick are part of the team Frost assembles to produce the Nixon interviews.)

The appeal of “Frost/Nixon,” Morgan’s play and Cromie’s production, is in the insight it gives into two men and two powerful professions, politics and television. You see Frost preparing for his showdown with Nixon, confident and lighthearted while his producers are worried that Nixon will outfox a host that doesn’t have the same interest they do in creating news. In contrast, you see Nixon, equally confident, but letting hubris take over again in possibly underestimating Frost and his ability to slide a question in through the back door rather than be direct and confrontational as Mike Wallace might.

Nixon and his team are relieved that Frost has bid $600,000 against CBS’s $350,000 for the Nixon exclusive. They, like others, think Frost too frothy, too hail-fellow-well-met, to go in for a kill. They also believe Frost is no match for Nixon. Hubris!

Morgan is cleverly suggestive about Nixon’s admission to Frost of going above his station and the law. He has one of his characters wonder out loud, if Nixon was tired of stonewalling and wanted to confess at last and get on with his life and a career, although Morgan says otherwise, that included achievements that add to the Nixon legacy. Morgan correctly notes what however one judges that legacy, it will always include the taint of corruption that overrides his overture to China, his stable economic policy, his dealings with the Soviet Union, and the end of the Vietnam War. Morgan notes further that every scandal that occurs in politics is given the suffix of “gate” in cynical commemoration of Watergate.

Morgan knows television and the way it is produced as well as he knows politics and the tenor of the Frost interviews. His knowledge gives texture to his play and adds to the production, as Cromie subtly but importantly uses closed circuit to show Widdall as Frost and Olmstead as Nixon in close-up on monitors. Normally, showing something that’s in front of you anyway seems superfluous, but in this case, it lets you see the characters as an ensemble and as individuals and strengthened the production. Set designer Cory Palmer was canny in including the coffin-looking hexagons that were part of Frost’s program into his set for New City Stage.

In all important ways, the New City Stage mounting does full credit to “Frost/Nixon.” Olmstead and Widdall are individually and collectively remarkable in their parts. Olmstead, in particular, brings Nixon to vivid life that shows his stature as a leader and statesman.

Jered McLenigan is crisp and businesslike as Nixon’s chief of staff, a member of the military whose uniform is impeccably ironed and whose discipline is as precise. Tim Dugan has fine moments as Frost’s handpicked choice to produce the Nixon interviews. He has a way of being simultaneously calm and biting that is as British as the character he portrays. David Bardeen is all gloss and deal-making brightness as Nixon’s agent, Swifty Lazar, and as Mike Wallace. Sam Sherburne is as funny as he is intent on making good television as Bob Zelnick. J Hernandez conveys self-righteous tension and political zeal, different from that of his more neutral television colleagues, as Jim Reston. Marissa Bescript is coolly elegant as Frost’s girlfriend, Caroline Cushing.

As generally satisfying as the New City Stage production is, I have a couple of cavils. Most involve the costumes credited to Kate Edelson. People on television dress up. I have worked in and around television for decades and can tell you that no one, especially in the 70s when suits and ties were de rigueur, would wear the clashing combinations and dreadful fabrics Sherburne does as Zelnick. Also, Frost’s suit would have been finer, and Nixon’s suit would have been as pressed as the uniform McLenigan wears as his chief of staff.  Nixon asks about and comments on his appearance several times during the play. It is obvious he is conscious of and conscientious about it. I did like the cuff links that looked as if they bore the Presidential seal that Olmstead’s Nixon wore. (It is possible that Reston, a writer and academic, might have worn a gray jacket that went against his general palette of tans and soft browns.) Television folks at high levels are good at haberdashery. The outfits in this production just seemed wrong. I also would have liked to have seen less of a fawning sitcom wife and more of a sophisticated take on Pat Nixon in the one instance she appears in the play.

The cavils are minor and in no way take away from the quality and enjoyment of Cromie’s production. “Frost/Nixon” is a play of tangible heft that is displayed with full force by the New City Stage Company.

“Frost/Nixon” runs through Sunday, January 5 in a production by New City Stage Company at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are  8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $30 with a discount for students and seniors. They can be obtained by calling 215-563-7500 or going online to www.NewCityStage.org.

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