BWW Review: Marsh and Brown razzle dazzle us at Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma as FROST/NIXON hits eerily close to home
Currently on stage at Lyric is a handful of some of Oklahoma City's finest actors transforming themselves and the theatre into the world of the late 70s and the aftermath of the Watergate scandal in Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon. First of all, I would like to give kudos to the programming team at Lyric for picking such a timely piece where many of the themes, topics, and dialogue seemed like it could have been pulled straight from today's headlines. The only thing reminding me that this wasn't drafted directly from the daily news or last night's Twitter feed, was the spot on scenic, costume, and wig design. From the muted earth-tone shag carpet, to the front creased plaid pants, to the tapered, feathered, and (luckily) long-forgotten hairstyles, we are transported back to a time when television was really taking off and the beginning stages of how this New Medium would forever alter the world of politics in America.
I imagine playing such iconic historical figures such as David Frost and Richard Nixon would be quite a mammoth undertaking. However, Matthew Alvin Brown as Frost, and Lance Marsh as Nixon, did it with convincing ease. And just in case that wasn't a big enough ask, they were also tasked with playing these roles not just for stage but also for film. Director, Michael Baron's vision to incorporate live video stream not only challenged the actors but the audience as well, as we were invited to experience an interview style show in an extremely interesting and frankly, much more engaging way, expanding the playing space to 360 degrees and beyond, utilizing non-traditional spaces such as backstage areas and the lobby. The intimacy created by these added cinematic moments is something seldom experienced in traditional, proscenium settings and it felt like a rare, two-for-one deal.
Acting for the two different mediums is extremely different and quite difficult to maneuver between so quickly. Brown and Marsh in particular have often been seen locally playing larger than life characters. However, they seem to have mastered the delicate balance between the two styles, navigating between grander theatrical gestures and more subdued and subtle moments at the appropriate times. I suppose there was a bit of internal acting gymnastics going on in the brains of these two actors though the effort of it was not visible to the viewer. A particularly standout moment was the controversial "phone call" scene, which Nixon supporters are a bit sensitive about. Nixon calls Frost the night before the big final interview with a drunken sort of "we're-not-so-different-you-and-I" pep talk. Apparently Nixon was not a drinker and his defenders think this artistic liberty paints him in a bad light (as if it can get any worse). But fact or fiction, Marsh delivers this well-penned monologue on a large screen with a subtle poignancy that hits you in the gut, a reaction seen reflected on Brown's face as he discovers before our eyes the historical gravity of the task he is about to take on.
Luckily, Frost (Brown) was not alone in his endeavors. He had an advisory team that was comprised not only of big hitters historically, but are portrayed by major players in the Oklahoma City scene, including David Dobson, Jonathan Beck Reed, and Gregory Decandia. Serving as narrator is Decandia, playing an eager James (Jim) Reston Jr., whose works both fiction and non-fiction cover a wide range of historical and political topics. His expertise on Nixon and the scandal landed him a prime spot on Frost's advisory team leading up to the infamous interview. Reed, who is known for convincingly transforming into a wide range of characters, including sassy middle-aged southern women, has done it once again in his portrayal of Bob Zelnick, American journalist and executive editor of the interviews. Dobson played the angel-on-the-shoulder role of producer John Birt, as he continuously tries to reign David Frost in and maintain a logical approach to the interview preparations.
On Nixon's team was his chief of staff, Colonel John Brennan, played with militaristic precision by Andi Dema. Rodney Brazil played a fiercely devoted Manolo Sanchez, long-time valet for Nixon. Also batting for "Tricky Dicky", or for perhaps himself, was famous Hollywood agent Switfy Lazar, who negotiated a $650,000 deal with David Frost for the interview. Swifty was played quite slinkily by Ronn Burton who underwent perhaps the most drastic physical metamorphosis for the show. Ronn, shorn of full head of hair and long beard, was just one of many of the actors in Frost/Nixon whose portrayal and transformation made me completely forget that I was watching a show.
Emily Pace was a sweet yet strong Caroline Cushing, who stood out due to Pace's portrayal more than how Cushing was written by Morgan. Perhaps due to the nature of the show focusing on the experience of the men, it was quickly glazed over that Cushing also had a journalistic background and would become editor of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. She was much more than just a sandwich making machine for love interest, David Frost. The only other woman in the show was Evonne Goolagong, played by Kaylila Pasha. Though she had a much smaller supporting role, she took on the great task of a majority of the live-filming, perfectly framing and following the action being projected on several screens above the main playing space.
As Decandia states in the closing monologue, showbiz and politics are really not that different. As tired as this idea may seem, as it is a prevalent theme in many stage plays and musicals, I found myself drifting farther and farther into the world of the play (despite a few line bobbles here and there), forgetting momentarily that I was in a theatre watching actors, even some friends, play out this distant yet eerily familiar tale. The song and dance and smoke and mirrors that is the reality of our current political climate doesn't look so different from this 40 year old scandal that at one point seemed to almost disappear into the dust of history books. This event was only a single brush stroke on a much larger backdrop setting the stage for the major role television and media would play in our political future. Whether it was the familiarity of close-ups on a lying politician, or the perfectly pleated plaid pants of a journalist, or the mere razzle dazzle of a company of elite Oklahoma City actors, Frost/Nixon proved to be an engaging and important piece of historical theatre that will leave you wondering if we are all, whether hero or villain, actor or politician, just "looking for a way back into the sun, into the limelight?"
Frost/Nixon runs through September 22 at Lyric Plaza Theatre.
For more info or to purchase tickets, click here.
Photos courtesy of Lyric Theatre and K. Talley Photography