Kicking Nixon

I don't think anyone can explain the point of Frost/Nixon — the play or the movie. That goes as well for playwright Peter Morgan, who apparently believes that a play about a disgraced president squaring off against a marginal TV personality is so novel, such a smashing good idea, that it is a point unto itself.

If you've seen Frost/Nixon in either its live or onscreen incarnations, consider: Is this a serious probe of either David Frost or Richard Nixon? No. It could have been, but it deals so lightly with the history involved and gives its characters such a superficial treatment that it acts more as a primer on the lives of its principals.

If you know the general contours of the plot, your understanding will not be meaningfully enhanced by anything you see onstage. The gist of it is that a disgraced president does interviews with a fluff journalist for exorbitant sums of money, and in the end, the fluff journalist nails the president to the wall on the Watergate scandal and extracts a confession of wrongdoing. Indeed, the most revealing scenes of the play are the ones the playwright didn't write: the interviews themselves. These are widely available, and many in the largely gray-haired theater audiences have probably seen them.

So then, is Frost/Nixon the play at least a good primer? Not at all. The early scenes find Frost trying to organize and fund his interviews. All we learn about the Nixon presidency comes from vague, and vaguely forced, expository remarks made by his research assistants. (We do learn quite a bit about Frost's mid-'70s financial woes, but who cares?) Apparently, Nixon was disliked. Apparently, he continued Johnson's war for far too long, and apparently he lied about American prospects for victory. Apparently, he "opened" China. Apparently, his Committee to Re-Elect the President got into some dirty skullduggery at a hotel called Watergate. Oh. Good to know. Maybe I'm underestimating the ignorance of the movie- and theatergoing public, but aren't those of us willing to spend money on Frost/Nixon aware of these facts already?

A quick look around the theater reveals why this welterweight script has met such outlandish success, including a Tony Award, a hit movie adaptation, and five Oscar nominations. Gray heads nod and low voices say "yup" and "yep" in happy recognition at contentless and contextless references to Nixon-connected people, places, and things — Chuck Colson, Gerald Ford, Whittier College, the "Checkers" speech, the White House taping system. But these theatergoers are not moved. How could they be? There's no one to care for in this script, no one for whom to feel sympathy. Nor does the script ask theatergoers to think about or reappraise anything. They are asked only to watch and remember, and they love it the way you love an old and cherished song to which you discover you still remember the words. Frost/Nixon is just the same: an exercise in nostalgia conducted by a script as insecure as Nixon, as conservative as Goldwater, and as optimistically overambitious as Lyndon Johnson.

We could stop there, because reviewing the production details of a play this bad is a bit like critiquing the Titanic band's rendition of "Nearer My God to Thee." But thanks to some happy accident of fate, there actually is something worth praising about the Frost/Nixon currently being performed at the Caldwell Theatre. Wynn Harmon is his name, and he plays David Frost.

Harmon doesn't just steal the show: He makes it his bitch. No slight intended to the other actors: Margery Lowe, Peter Haig, Michael St. Pierre, and a cast full of other equally capable artists do their jobs as well as the script demands. If that's lukewarm praise, sorry: Morgan wrote them as placeholders and name-droppers, and they didn't have a lot of options. But the script gives Harmon something it doesn't give anyone else: the chance to interview Nixon. It is at that moment that Frost/Nixon finally catches fire, and I tell you, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Bruce Sabath's deeply unconvincing turn as Nixon. Sabath is too young, bears no physical resemblance to the man, and never so much as hunches a shoulder.

Frost/Nixon presents itself as a contest between the journalist and the president — one of them will leave the interviews rehabilitated, the other will leave disgraced — and from Harmon's first line, you can sense not only that he will win but that he would win if it were to happen all over again. He is not the dazed, dunce-like Frost played by Michael Sheen in the movie and on Broadway: He is a quick-thinking, determined warrior, his easy English classiness his weapon of choice: Picture William F. Buckley reimagined as a British liberal with something to prove. As the interviews get under way and Harmon and Sabath appear on screens to either side of the stage, the actor is subsumed by the journalist. There is suddenly no distance between Harmon '09 and Frost '76, and you can almost smell the newly awakened killer in Frost seeping out of Harmon's pores, turning the gilded Caldwell into a proving ground as gritty and dangerous as any boxing ring or back alley.

This, finally, is something worth seeing. It's not literature, it's not history, and it's not even really a drama — the latter possibility is eliminated by the cram-everything-into-the-run-time compromises made so often in filmed or onstage biographies and that seem to have utterly dominated Morgan's creative process. But it is acting. In the theater, sometimes that's enough.

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Brandon K. Thorp