Through the Wilderness: FROST/NIXON
In The Vagabond Players’ production of Frost/Nixon, there’s a pivotal scene involving a semi-drunken phone call from Richard Nixon to celebrity interviewer David Frost the night before the last of four interviews with the former President. Nixon observes, “…the limelight can only shine on ONE of us. And for the other, it’ll be the wilderness. With nothing and no one for company…”
This is the heart of British screenwriter and dramatist Peter Morgan’s play, the battle between two highly ambitious men—David Frost, trying to take his career from the British/Australian minors to the American majors, and Nixon, trying to exorcise the spectre of Watergate and return to the political power games in Washington, D.C.
Jeff Murray plays Nixon as a sermonizer, delivering mildly amusing anecdotes on everything from Soviet Premier Brezhnev’s lack of automotive driving skills to a staring contest over “inedible food” with Chairman Mao’s wife, but makes it clear it’s a role he’d really rather not be playing.
Michael B. Zemeral’s Frost is Nixon’s opposite in that he makes it clear his role before the cameras is one he truly relishes, using the same skills to get his subject to open up, whether the person in the guest chair is a Hollywood starlit or one of the key American figures of the 20th century. Nixon believes he is perceived as an insignificant man, a fraternity-reject, and is out to prove the opposite. Frost on the other hand knows he is seen as “just a talk show host,” which he doesn’t deny—his argument is, at this moment in society with television booming, being a TV host is a lot more powerful than pundits might imagine.
As Eric C. Stein’s Jim Reston -- who serves as Greek chorus, providing commentary throughout the 2-hour play – notes, it was Frost’s understanding of the vagaries of television that played a key role in making the Frost/Nixon interviews so successful.
Both Zemeral and Murray should be congratulated on never allowing their roles to degenerate into stereotype. When Murray’s Nixon finally yields under the pressure once Frost delivers his knockout blow – a revelation about a nearly forgotten conversation between Nixon and White House Special Counsel Charles Colson – there’s no over-the-top, could-see-it-in-the-cheap-seats look of astonishment. Murray plays the moment with touching mix of both surprise and resignation; Murray makes the character of Nixon far more than a 2-dimensional villain, but a tragic figure that the real-life Frost once described as “a sad man who so wanted to be great.”
Zemeral’s Frost is true to his jet-setter, playboy image, winning over a lady fellow passenger, Caroline Cushing (Laura Malkus) who becomes his girlfriend. Zemeral, who has his crisis of faith in the privacy of his hotel room, never reveals anything but upbeat energy among his staff, John Birt (Joel Ottenheimer), Jim Reston (Stein), or Bob Zelnick as played by Todd Krickler, who produces one of the play’s most humorous moments as he imitates Nixon during a mock interview session.
Also serving in supporting roles are Larry Pinker, especially adept in the role of Hollywood agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar (to whom, in his oversized glasses, bears a resemblance), cigar in hand, working the system to get his client, Nixon, as much money as possible for his memoirs and the Frost interviews, and Tom Moore’s Jack Brennan who has just the right look for a PR man—plain, no flash, nearly invisible, never taking attention away from his client, Mr. Nixon, but jumping in when necessary when the questions get too tough.
Whether one knows the story of Nixon and the Watergate scandal or not (and if the students in my Loyola University class, who had no idea who Henry Kissinger was, are any indication, more “NOT”), one cannot help but be drawn into this battle of wills that also represents a major cultural change—the rise of television and mass media, a revolution that, with social media and the internet, continues even today.