Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 22, 2007
Frost/Nixon by Peter Morgan. Directed by Michael Grandage. Set and Costume Designer: Christopher Oram. Lighting Designer: Neil Austin. Composer and Sound Designer: Adam Cork. Video Designer: Jon Driscoll. Hair and Wig Designer: Richard Mawbey. Cast: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen. With Remy Auberjonois, Shira Gregory, Corey Johnson, Stephen Kunken, Stephen Rowe, Triney Sandoval, Armand Schultz, Sonya Walger, Bob Ari, Dennis Cockrum, Antony Hagopian, Roxanna Hope.
Two, of course, are David Frost and Richard Nixon, the British broadcaster and the disgraced American president who transfixed America and the world in 1977 with a series of shocking televised interviews. Though the first three of Frost's programs were roundabout games of softball, it was in the fourth that history was made when Nixon admitted his guilt in the Watergate scandal and revealed the all-consuming repentance he'd long kept hid.
Though this is the most excitingly realized moment in Michael Grandage's otherwise cruelly contemplative production, the implosion of contemporary history is overshadowed by the men whose jobs are merely to present it. As Frost and Nixon respectively, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella break through the bonds of expectation to discover dimensions to the story that the two men themselves might well be surprised about.
Their goal instead is show the degrees to which power corrupts whether one is being made or unmade, and that it's often difficult to distinguish between the two. Frost, who had developed a reputation as a journalistic lightweight, grows in stature and confidence with each of Nixon's attempts to deflect his more probing questions; the former president, on the other hand, collapses to such a microscopic figure when Frost goes in for the kill that it's only through video designer Jon Driscoll's careful use of cameras and monitors that we can see him at all.
Yet as projected, Langella's Nixon transcends pity to become a man almost triumphantly tragic. As he becomes increasingly oppressed under the weight of Frost's questioning, he seems more and more like a modern-day Oedipus at Colonus, if one standing trial before the court of public consumption rather than the gods. Now reaching the lowest point of his life, he can barely restrain tears and he struggles against either regressing into youth or dissolving all at once into old age.
Langella's performance is less an impersonation than a spiritual approximation: He doesn't look or sound especially like Nixon, but always convinces and frequently stuns as someone forever trying to escape the curse of the mortality he brought upon himself. His downfall was his fault and his alone, and as Langella's Nixon progresses from cagey manipulator to caged animal, you understand that he realizes it as well. It's an immensely powerful portrayal that makes a much-maligned figure into someone heartbreakingly real; Langella's work is unmatched by that of any other actor in a Broadway show this season.
Sheen, not forced to compete with history, doesn't find similar depths in Frost. In his earlier scenes, he seems to channel the same frustrated ineffectuality that he so successfully brought to Tony Blair in last year's film The Queen - for his Frost, who places his very financial existence on the line to get and keep Nixon, the stakes seldom seem high enough. But he comes into his own once the interviews escalate into the gladiatorial combat, seizing his adversary with the deceptively deadly charm he spent most of the evening cultivating; it's a daring turnaround that jolts the play's second half to life.
That life, though, is in otherwise short supply. The play bides its time sufficiently until the interview scene, but Morgan doesn't paint vivid portraits of its subjects that might make it feel less like the BBC documentary it currently resembles. (Christopher Oram's sterile scenery and Neil Austin's wanly warm lighting don't help.) A few other characters play crucial, prominent roles - most notably Frost's caustic researcher Jim Reston (Stephen Kunken) and Nixon's protective chief of staff Jack Brennan (Corey Johnson) - but are treated more as substitute narrators than key components of the action. Still others, like Nixon's old-timey agent and 60 Minutes stalwart Mike Wallace (both played with Catskill efficiency by Stephen Rowe), are comic-relief fixtures in a show hardly in need of them.
This might have worked for British audiences who more naturally identified with Frost (this production got it start at The Donmar Warehouse). But for American audiences more avidly aware of Nixon's impact on the country, it's perhaps too facile a treatment of a subject that still riles many with its merest mention. Grandage expertly finds the play's lighter moments, slyly and satirically commenting on the life-or-death nature television assumes in both central characters' lives. But he's entrusted the task of fleshing out the darker aspects primarily to his actors, most of whom aren't up to the task. Langella, of course, is the exception, but too many of the other performers (Sheen, in his earlier scenes, included) blithely allow scenes to froth when they should sting.
Only two scenes completely escape this. One, of course, is Nixon's on-air breakdown. Another occurs a few minutes earlier, when Frost and Nixon, each alone on the night before the final interview, share a poignant phone call in which we see how alike the two men really are. Both are scared, both are betting their lives on succeeding, both will do anything possible to make sure they do. That Nixon is as drunk at the time as Frost is despondent is not accidental; it's the only time in the whole play that both men are truly on the same level.
Whether it's based on actual events or is entirely the creation of Morgan's dramatic license, their conversation centers the play, making it undeniably clear for the first time all evening that the line between media and politics is all but nonexistence at the highest levels. You're allowed, even encouraged, to witness what each is facing and perhaps sympathize with the unique circumstances in which they've been placed; it's hard to think of either man, or his profession, in quite the same way afterwards.
Each is, after all, fighting for his future against an opponent of unexpected ferocity, chosen specifically for the lack of challenge he apparently represented. This is hubris nearly worthy of Greek tragedy, and Frost, Nixon, Sheen, and Langella don't come up short when faced with it. Too much of the rest of Frost/Nixon, however, does.