Thursday, May 10, 2007

“Frost Nixon” – A Tour de Force on Broadway

I had a hole in my schedule of meetings in NYC this week, and was able to pick up half-price tickets at the last minute to see the acclaimed production of “Frost Nixon” starring Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. It was a moving two hours of high drama.

“Frost Nixon” is the first stage play by the award-winning screen writer, Peter Morgan, whose recent films have included Academy Award Winner, “The Queen” and “The Last King of Scotland.” In this play, Morgan has captured the riveting behind the scenes maneuvering that led to the historic media event of David Frost interviewing the disgraced former President, Richard Nixon. The way the action develops, it has the feel of the run-up to a classic Ali-Frazier fight. In fact, some of the principles involved in handling Nixon and Frost allude to the boxing analogy, at one point commenting that leading up to the taping of the final interview, Nixon is “leading on points, and the only way that Frost can win the battle is by administering a knock-out punch.”

The writing and the acting is so good that at several points along the way, the audience spontaneously erupted in applause, in effect stopping the show for a moment. I have occasionally experienced this phenomenon in musical theater, but have rarely seen this happen in a drama. Frank Langella as the woodenly haunted ex-President manages to present both a caricature of the man and an emotionally vulnerable portrait of the enigmatic Nixon. It is a performance guaranteed to garner both a Tony nomination and a Drama Desk nod (officially Tony nominations for this Broadway season will be announced on May 15).

In analyzing what made this such a memorable theater experience for me, I went through a fascinating progression of thoughts. When I learned that Peter Morgan had written both this play and the movie, “The Queen,” my first thought was that the role of David Frost in “Frost Nixon” served many of the same purposes that the role of “Tony Blair” served in the film, “The Queen.” The young, brash and ambitious Blair stood in stark contrast to the stolid and venerable Queen Elizabeth II, and he served as a goad to her as well, functioning as a sounding board for bringing to the surface thoughts and feelings that had lain long hidden. David Frost played similar roles in relationship to Nixon – his flamboyant Hollywood lifestyle standing in contradistinction to Nixon’s dour and anti-social mien. The distinction is brilliantly symbolized by a pair of Italian loafers that Frost wears during the taping of the interviews. Nixon viewed those loafers as “unmanly and even a bit effeminate.” As a parting gift, Frost presented Nixon with his own pair of the stylish loafers. And, even as I write these words, it occurs to me that through the gift of the loafers, symbolically Frost was saying to Nixon: “If the shoe fits . . .”!

And then I learned that the actor, Michael Sheen, had played both roles – Blair and Frost! He is brilliant in both roles, and holds his own in the ring against the heavyweight, Langella/Nixon.

I have been haunted by Richard Nixon – the politician and the man - since my boyhood days when he served as Eisenhower’s Vice-President. I have always found him to be fascinating and repulsive, someone I enjoyed hating in the abstract. Like the character in the play, Jim Reston, upon seeing the man portrayed in light of these interviews, I was forced to develop a more three-dimensional view and appreciation of the complex and troubled man whose legacy – for good and for ill – will be indelible for generations to come. The character of Reston offers a kind of brief prologue, talking about the Greek playwright, Aeschylus, portraying the gods as condemning successful men with the fatal flaw of hubris – the seeds of self-destruction. The career of Richard M. Nixon does indeed play out as a Greek tragedy, and Morgan masterfully offers the tragedy to us in contemporary garb as a cautionary tale.

If you live near NYC or will be traveling there in the next few weeks, you should consider this a “not-to-be-missed” event. The play is scheduled for a limited run at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater at 245 W. 45th Street.



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