EmptyBernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York
Using the talent for translating recent history into gripping drama that he demonstrated with his screenplays for "The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland," writer Peter Morgan has produced another triumph in "Frost/Nixon." This behind-the-scenes tale of the 1977 televised interviews between the talk show host and the disgraced president is rendered with an always entertaining mix of sophisticated comedy and breathless narrative drive.
Featuring compelling performances by Michael Sheen and Frank Langella as the titular characters, the play, which enjoyed hit runs at London's Donmar Warehouse and subsequently on the West End, should enjoy similar success here.
What might have seemed an unlikely subject for dramatization works beautifully in Morgan's hands. The writer no doubt exaggerates for dramatic effect, but his central concept -- depicting the business negotiations and subsequent interview sessions as a sort of intellectual boxing match between two gladiators who have much at stake -- works beautifully onstage.
In the play's depiction, David Frost is seen as a lightweight talk show host whose career is in a freefall after the cancellation of his U.S. television show. Consigned to oblivion in Australia, he's desperate to get back into the big leagues, and he sees scoring an interview with Nixon, albeit at a high financial risk, as the way to do so.
The ex-president, meanwhile, is in similar exile in California and wants only to restore his damaged reputation after Watergate and move back east where the action is.
The intermissionless drama has three distinct sections. The first involves the hard-edged negotiations between Frost and Nixon's people, including the legendarily aggressive agent Swifty Lazar (Stephen Rowe). The second revolves around the efforts of Frost and his team, which includes investigative reporter Jim Reston (Stephen Kunken), to find the "gotcha" questions about Nixon's transgressions that will make the interviews salable to the networks. And the third depicts the sessions themselves as the canny Nixon keeps finding ways to dodge and weave around Frost's initially lightweight questions.
While some will no doubt have quibbles with the historical accuracy of the play, general audiences will find every minute of it compelling. There are times when the characterizations seem a bit off: Frost's shallowness certainly is exaggerated, and Nixon has so many laugh lines that he seems more of a retired stand-up comic than the legendarily morose figure he was. But overall, the playwright exhibits an amazing ability to find the human drama that in lesser hands could have been a dryly informational and schematic treatise.
Director Michael Grandage, finally making his New York debut, has delivered a terrifically fast-paced production, aided immeasurably by the massive video screens that provide contextual footage and, especially in the final section, invaluable close-ups of the two actors.
Sheen is wonderfully engaging as Frost, well conveying his character's complicated mix of charm and ambitiousness. But he's inevitably overshadowed by Langella, who delivers not a caricature by a deeply complex portrait of a practically Shakespearean figure who emerges as surprisingly sympathetic.
A Donmar Warehouse production presented by Arielle Tepper Madover, Matthew Byam Shaw, Robert Fox, Act Prods., David Binder, Debra Black, Anette Niemtzow/Harlene Freezer and the Weinstein Co.
Playwright: Peter Morgan
Director: Michael Grandage
Set/costume designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Composer/sound designer: Adam Cork
Richard Nixon: Frank Langella
David Frost: Michael Sheen
John Birt: Remy Auberjonois
Evonne Goolagong: Shira Gregory
Jack Brennan: Corey Johnson
Jim Reston: Stephen Kunken
Swifty Lazar/Mike Wallace: Stephen Rowe
Manolo Sanchez: Triney Sandoval
Bob Zelnick: Armand Schultz
Caroline Cushing: Sonya Walger