By ANTHONY CHASE
The theater is driven by empathy. How deliciously complicated that becomes when the central figure of the play is Richard III or Richard Nixon! The current Irish Classical Theatre production of Peter Morgan’s 2006 play, Frost/Nixon, taunts us with the suggestion that one of the most despised American presidents of all time might have rescued his place in history with a convincing television appearance.
The play follows the planning, production, and airing of a series of interviews conducted by British journalist David Frost with disgraced Richard Nixon in 1977. Nixon had resigned from the presidency in 1974, rather than face impeachment and removal from office in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
The appeal of the play is the tension created during the planning and preparation for the interviews, and in the battle between Frost and Nixon for each to make or break his reputation while millions watched on television. The metaphor of a boxing match is evoked in the play and made visually literal by Brian Cavanagh’s handsome set, which frames the action in a kind of boxing ring, a square platform painted with a stars and stripe motif. Using this flexible stage area, the production makes dynamic use of the circular Andrews Theatre stage.
The Irish Classical production of Frost/Nixon opens at a time when we have a president who clearly understands the power of television, but has not been having a very good week. It is valuable to recall that historically, Nixon also understood the power of television. In fact, he knew television as well as David Frost did. He had famously salvaged his career with a televised 1952 speech in which he endeared himself to the American people by evoking his modest means; his loving wife, Pat (who appeared on camera); and by insisting, amidst charges of improper campaign financing, that he would keep the gift of a black and white dog that his daughters had named “Checkers.” At the same time, he knew that his tendency to sweat on camera, and a five o-clock shadow that made him look haggard, damaged him terribly when he appeared in the televised 1960 presidential debates beside cool and handsome John F. Kennedy.
This is the historic background.
This production of Frost /Nixon, which Brian Cavanagh has directed as well as designed, builds on the mythological status that the actual 1977 interviews have achieved over time. The casting of Jack Hunter as Richard Nixon, and Adriano Gatto as David Frost is brilliant.
The dramatic tension of the play depends upon the ability of the audience to believe that Nixon might actually win in the court of popular opinion. The casting of Hunter, an actor who is charismatic to the point of being adorable, fuels this. The interplay between Hunter and good-looking and sincere Gatto, heightens the stakes. While the popular imagination has turned Nixon into the Richard III of American Presidents, in reality, he was a master politician. His fall from popularity, after having been reelected in a landslide, carrying 49 of the 50 states and more than 60 percent of the popular vote, was breathtaking.
Appropriately, the play begins with a reference to Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy. The great tragedies are stories of the arrogant and the mighty brought low by their flaws. Aeschylus was, in addition, the playwright who introduced a second actor to Greek drama, allowing for the sort of face-off that is Frost/Nixon. This is to be a clash of Titans from the age of network television.
The script is divided into two opposing camps. On one side we have David Frost; his producer, John Birt, played by David Lundy; two researchers, Jim Reston, played by Adam Yellen, and Bob Zelnick, played by Matt Witten; and Frost’s girlfriend, played by Renee Landrigan. These are the protagonists.
On the opposing side, our antagonists are Richard Nixon; his agent Swifty Lazar, played by Ray Boucher; and Nixon’s post-presidential chief of staff, Jack Brennan, played by Peter Palmisano.
Assorted other characters are nimbly played by Jamie O’Neill (with occasional appearances by Boucher and Landrigan). Yellen and Palmisano’s characters also serve as narrators.
The machinery of the play is simple yet clever. Even knowing that history will not be kind to Nixon, we watch the thrust and parry with rapt attention. The laughter and the wincing in the audience are equally palpable. The acting ensemble is perfection.
The 2007 Broadway production of the play, a London transfer with original stars Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon, made generous use of technology, video screens and such. It was thrilling and the actors were marvelous. Langella picked up the third of his four Tony Awards.
By contrast, other than a fine sound design by Tom Makar that amps up volume during the interviews and punctuates dramatic moments, and light by Cavanagh, this production is low tech. The emphasis is placed squarely and unforgivingly on Gatto and Hunter as they duke it out for our empathy. Particularly in the intimate space of the Andrews theater, this strategy is also thrilling.
Costume designer Kari Drozd and hair and make-up designer Susan Drozd have had a field day defining the characters visually while recreating the fashions of the period.
Hunter is excellent as Nixon. Deploying the charm of the expert politician, he toys with us, flirting around our knowledge that, yes, this man is a crook. (It can’t be a spoiler to report the historic fact that these interviews culminated with Nixon’s declaration that the President is above the law, and his admission that he participated in a cover-up of the Watergate burglary).
Gatto is his equal, imbuing Frost with the intellect and drive of an ace journalist, but also the flaws of a playboy and bon vivant. We deeply want him to win.
The interplay between the faces of these two actors is splendid. Cavanagh has the actors switch seats in the alternating scenes, so depending upon where you sit, you may be looking squarely at the face of Frost, or at the face of Nixon. This approach effectively creates the impression of looking at television close-ups.
I adored seeing Gatto, as Frost, become numb and sleepy during Nixon’s endless answers in their early exchanges. I was especially pleased that I was looking into his face when he reacted to Nixon’s famous assertion that "When the President does it, that means it's not illegal!”
Similarly, as Nixon, Hunter’s frustratingly impenetrable smile evokes delighted giggles. His failed efforts not to react when Frost delivers an unwelcome question are also amusing. Hunter effects the man’s gradual disintegration artfully.
A character that I do not particularly remember from seeing the play in 2007, but who pops vividly here, is Reston. As played by Yellen, this is an impassioned but principled man who, in some ways, emerges as the main character of the piece. He is the narrator through whom we come to understand the story, and Yellen plays him simply and believably in a way that boosts the power of the performance. In this tale of the fall of Goliath, Yellen provides a second David.
Of course, no villain is purely evil; no hero is without flaws. Two other characters serve to deepen our understanding of Frost and of Nixon, by providing the audience with eyes that see the good in each man.
Renee Landrigan plays socialite Caroline Cushman, the love interest of Frost, who shows us the man in his private moments. As Brennan, Peter Palmisano gives us an admiring view of Nixon. Both Cushman and Brennan are actual historic figures.
Through Caroline, we understand Frost to be more than a superficial man who cannot control his libido. He is more than a playboy and talk show host pretending to be a serious journalist. Yes, he likes women. But after the initial sexual attraction, Frost, who was involved with a succession of high powered and highly accomplished women during his life, quickly drinks in Caroline’s intellect, and eventually accepts her reasoned insight. Through these interactions, we first realize that Frost might have the depth to disarm Nixon. Landrigan is delightful in the role. (She is also hilarious as contrasting make up artists who interact with Frost and Nixon).
Brennan, as played by Palmisano, is the character through whom we see whatever goodness Nixon possesses. His character views Frost as a lightweight and dilettante; he sees Nixon as a great man, a much-abused leader and patriot. Brennan expresses the optimistic notion that Nixon might restore his reputation and win back the love of the American people through these interviews with a silly British talk show host. As Nixon’s friend and ally we also feel the palpable hits of the man’s downfall through him. As scripted, he is an earnest man, blinded to the truth of Nixon’s flaws by his political biases. Palmisano walks this delicate path, giving the man dignity, without making him a total jerk -- just a partial jerk.
Lundy, Boucher, and Witten make a skillful and engaging trio of characters. Boucher convincingly transforms himself into Swifty Lazar, an icon of the period. Lundy and Witten provide the contrasting voices that encourage and admonish Frost as he enters battle. These three talented actors create three distinct and effective character portraits.
Even knowing the historic moment in advance, Nixon’s final confession is astonishing. The genius of the play is to allow us to celebrate the tragedy of Richard Nixon with both exhilaration and a kind of solemnity. We empathize with his humanity, which the performance of Jack Hunter exposes, but we also feel the urgent necessity for his destruction.