Frost/Nixon: The Selling Of The Ex-President: 1977
The play's title suggests a legendary bout on the level of Dempsy/Tunney and Ali/Frasier. The main action takes place in a small, sparse space where a lowly regarded pretty boy is trying to prove his skills against the crafty former champion under the hot lights and in front of rolling cameras. There's big money at stake. A character narrates the conflict like a play-by-play announcer, using boxing analogies to describe lethal verbal blows. We witness the training and strategizing that takes place both before the match and in between its four rounds. Peter Morgan's first play may be small in cast size and production values, but it's an epic battle of Shakespearian proportions. Director Michael Grandage gives it a positively gripping production that sweats and bleeds y-chromosomes and places two sensational star performances face-to-face and toe-to-toe. Frost/Nixon, an attention-grabbing drama of politics presented as entertainment, is absolutely the best new play I've seen this season.
Before Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, no American president had a more involved relationship with the television camera than Richard M. Nixon. When accusations of a slush fund threatened his place as vice president on Dwight D. Eisenhower's Republican ticket, he saved his career with the televised "Checkers Speech," named after the pet cocker spaniel he spoke of to evoke sympathy. And though history blames his uncomfortable and sweaty appearance while debting the telegenic John F. Kennedy for his narrow loss in the 1960 presidential election, Joe McGinniss' best-seller, The Selling Of The President: 1968, describes the sophisticted marketing techniques Nixon successfully used before the camera to sell himself to the American voters as an indespensible consumer product. Morgan's play is set at a time when the disgraced ex-president is hungry for a chance to get in front of the cameras once more in an attempt to move his post-Watergate public life forward again.
The handsome and charismatic Brit David Frost achieved celebrity in the 1960's, a time when game show and chat show hosts were expected to have both charm and a vocabulary, using his wit and eloquence as star of the satirical That Was The Week That Was before becoming a familiar face throughout English-speaking television, interviewing both celebrities and news-makers. But by 1977 his star was fading and Frost was so anxious to set up a four part interview with the former president that he was willing to finance the project on his own when major sponsors showed no interest. Frost was determined be remembered as the man who got Nixon to admit his guilt. Nixon accepted a hefty sum convinced he could outmaneuver his host and present himself to the American people as a sympathetic hero. Each man needed the other to jump-start his career, but there could only be one victor.
Mixing transcripts with his own words, the author paints vivid characterizations of the brilliant, good-humored but delusionally flawed Nixon and the ambitious hot-shot Frost who is risking everything on a fight where he knows he's over-matched unless he can land a sucker punch.
Frank Langella is simply magnificent as the tragic figure of Nixon. Without doing an outright impersonation, his gruff voice and distinct mannerisms convey the essence of an imposing figure who is sorrowfully awkward in public, casting out dark humor that doesn't always land comfortably. Michael Sheen is just as brilliant as the slick, frenetically-paced Frost fighting an uphill battle to figure out how to slay this Goliath. Again, it's not an impersonation but perfectly in sync with the real thing.
The terrific supporting cast includes Stephen Kunken as the grudge-holding writer anxious to nail the guy who stomped over the U.S. Constitution, Remy Auberjonois as Frost's strategizing producer, Sonya Walger as the host's arm candy and Corey Johnson as Nixon's imposing chief of staff. Especially memorable is Stephen Rowe as both the humorously crass super agent Swifty Lazar and CBS reporter Mike Wallace.
Set and costume designer Christopher Oram places large TV screens above the combatants, just like you'd see in a sports arena, delivering unflattering close-ups as they alternate jabbing and squirming. Politics this ugly is politics at its most entertaining.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Frank Langella
Center: Michael Sheen