BWW Reviews: Open Stage's FROST/NIXON Heats Up Harrisburg
Two men both used to being in the limelight, both out of it and desperate to get back into it. Two men both putting themselves on the line for their own individual careers – one financially, if he can't get any backers; one on behalf of his reputation and his place in world history. That's the story of Peter Morgan's FROST/NIXON, now being shown in a compelling production by Open Stage of Harrisburg, tightly directed by Donald L. Alsedek and starring Stuart Landon as English interviewer David Frost and Anthony M.C. Leukus as former U.S. President Richard Nixon.
If this play is in any way a historical curiosity or an education of sorts to younger audience members, it is well worth their remembering that although Morgan's drama is not a documentary, it is an astute portrayal of the situation described; for slightly older audience members, it is a vivid flashback, especially to those, like this writer, who can recall being part of that historic, huge audience that watched Richard Nixon's televised posturing on Vietnam, defending of his domestic policies (which now, in hindsight, seem far more liberal than his successors'), and tap-dancing around Watergate, with his revealing of his belief that when the President does it, it isn't illegal. The Frost interviews of Nixon were a major journalistic coup that was – as the story indicates – not recognized as such until after they were aired.
Leukus and Landon, both Open Stage veterans, are strong performers whose interpretations of their characters ring true, although neither is giving a direct portrayal of either man. Landon's portrayal of Frost has more of a Stephen Fry air about it at first while on stage, although it quickly settles into a characterization of the David Frost that television-watchers of the time will remember, from his clothing sense to his womanizing to his desperate need to have an audience want to see him. Once it does, Landon's performance is powerful. Leukus, on the other hand, is Richard Nixon from the moment he steps on stage, inhabiting the former President's character remarkably, including a Nixon vocalization that, while perhaps not as perfect as Rich Little's notorious professional impression of the man, is more than sufficient to trigger an immediate flashback for anyone who has ever heard Nixon's voice.
Other cast are well-suited, as well. Brian Schreffler's characterization of Irving "Swifty" Lazar, America's most infamous celebrity agent, rings true as he battles his own client, Nixon, over payments Nixon is to be made in what became one of America's best-known (and yet one of the most journalistically successful) cases of checkbook journalism. Philip Wheeler is equally as successful as Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio journalist, and later ABC television journalist and journalism professor, Bob Zelnick.
Michael Kirby's Jim Reston (James Reston Jr., not his father) suffers in comparison; he feels a bit slight to carry the weight of narrator/Greek chorus, though he carries through gamely. Jim Lewis as Nixon's post-resignation chief of staff Jack Brennan maintains the military bearing of the retired leatherneck officer but not the bite of the man; Brennan's well-known concern for the long term reputation of his leader seems to have less inner strength behind it than it might. However, this really does not detract from the overall high quality of this show.
Despite the minimalism of the set, the details are handled well and accurately; upon entering the theatre, you immediately notice vintage television cameras on tripods on either side of the stage. From the filming equipment to the furniture to the brief mock-up of 1970's first-class air travel, the period aura is spot-on. Set designer JimWoland deserves credit for the authenticity of the setting. Equal kudos to Gwen Alsedek for the wardrobe, of almost painful fidelity to 1970's fashion (which was indeed often painful). The cocktail party costuming will give anyone who attended one at the time a serious flashback.
What is it like to play two recent well-known historical figures, one of whom, Frost, is still alive and on television? According to Landon, "it's been fascinating learning about him [Sir David Frost] and playing a real person. I hope I'm doing him justice – but I'm having a lot of fun." Landon acknowledges not being terribly familiar with Frost prior to the show, no surprise as in recent years Frost's various series have been run in England on the BBC and internationally on Al-Jazeera English; most BBC programming and AJE are inaccessible to most Americans, although the Nixon interviews established Frost as a serious political interviewer and journalist rather than as the entertainment host that he'd been earlier.
Says Leukus on playing Nixon, "It's interesting playing him because he's so vilified, but it seems like every President since then has done something equally bad regardless of party. I can't hate him, because I'm playing him." Since the Frost interviews, of course, there's also been re-evaluation and re-re-evaluation of Nixon's presidency, and interpretations of that time have become many and varied, with Nixon being decried as both the worst President in history and one of the greatest of modern history at the same time. One wonders what Sir David now makes of the man in light of the same hindsight in which Leukus must interpret him.
It's a shame that in this area and others, musical theatre is at the top of every would-be audience's viewing list rather than drama. This is an important piece of American drama, and more current and more accessible to younger audiences than many works by Wilder, O'Neill, or Williams (among others). Unfortunately, no matter how often it will ultimately be performed in Central Pennsylvania, too few will see it, as too few have seen the related movie or the original staging of the play on Broadway.
If you have time, this is a must-see production. If you don't have time, then make some; you'll be glad of it. FROST/NIXON runs through October 27 at Open Stage of Harrisburg. For tickets, call (717) 232-OPEN (6736) or visit www.openstagehbg.com.
Photo credit: Open Stage of Harrisburg