nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 24, 2007
"You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."
- Richard M. Nixon, 1962
Poor Tricky Dick: even from the grave, he's not safe. Broadway's new (apparent) hit play, Frost/Nixon, digs a knife into the late president's metaphorical heart and twists and twists; Frank Langella, stooping and loping awkwardly under a head of receding shoe-polish-black hair, is this season's biggest crowd-pleaser as the President We Love To Hate. Playwright Peter Morgan (best-known for the recent film The Queen) gives us a post-Watergate Nixon who is one-third master politician, one-third paranoid weirdo, and one-third buffoon. This isn't exactly the guy we remember from meetings with Brezhnev or Mao, or even from the Kennedy debates or the famous resignation telecast; this is a Nixon who asks David Frost if he fornicated last night, does standup shtick for a convention of dentists, and argues with Swifty Lazar about who gets to hold a $200,000 advance check.
That check is the one that David Frost delivers in person to the president's ranch at San Clemente, to cement the four-episode interview series that he will film with Nixon. These four interviews—how they came to be, and what they ultimately accomplished—are the main subject of Frost/Nixon. The second half of the play is given over almost exclusively to a re-creation of the taping sessions; unfortunately, the program and press materials provide no information about how much, if any, of what we see and hear is authentically what Frost and Nixon actually said. (It seems somehow strange to me that if Bra-Tenders can get a mention in the Playbill for hosiery and undergarments, then surely Frost and Nixon could be acknowledged for whichever of their words Morgan has used in his script.)
One of the things we hear in this play is an assertion that one of Frost's researchers, Jim Reston, found a key but at-that-time unpublished and unnoticed detail in the transcripts of the notorious White House tapes (the ones that seemed to implicate Nixon criminally but never quite did; the ones that had that famous 18-1/2 minute gap). What Reston says he discovers in the play is Nixon's clear admission of knowledge of the Watergate break-in before the event took place. Is this true? If it is, why had no one (for example, The Washington Post) found this evidence before? It's a provocative detail, and like almost everything else in Frost/Nixon, it's one I'm curious to know the veracity of.
But Morgan isn't interested in history (don't be misled by all the pundits who are calling this a "docudrama"). No, he's out to give his audience a good time. A laugh at Nixon's expense always feels good, right? They're supplied by the bundle here, along with a drawn-out breakdown and apology to the American people during the climactic final taping with Frost. A few gratuitous parallels to the current administration are thrown in, but they hold little weight and bear little scrutiny. The idea is to feel good about bringing Milhous down. When Ernestine the Telephone Operator did it, it was pungent political satire. What exactly is it now?
Not that Frost comes off so well here either: he's depicted as a shallow and not very bright man who picks up women on airplanes and who needs to be coached how to sit during a TV interview. Credit for his final triumph over Nixon is given here to Reston and his smoking-gun transcript (credit in the script, that is, not on it; read this).
Langella seems to be having a blast as Nixon and the audience seems to love watching him do so. Michael Sheen's Frost reminded me more of Anthony Newley. The supporting cast is literally that, with the slight exceptions of Stephen Rowe (who pretends to be Mike Wallace on video and Swifty Lazar on stage) and Stephen Kunken as Reston.
I should note, finally, that the play and production are substandard. Morgan uses two characters to narrate the story rather than writing scenes that carry the narrative on their own; director Michael Grandage relies on videotaped footage (of an airplane, of San Clemente) to set the scene rather than attempt to create environments on stage. I call Frost/Nixon shoddy as theatre and as an account of history. But audiences and my fellow critics aren't seeing it that way, and we can look forward to theatre and history repeating themselves as a result. They already are...