The 2008-09 season at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis has opened with a splendid production of British playwright Peter Morgan's play Frost/Nixon, a slightly fictionalized account of the devastating 1977 interviews in which David Frost, previously thought of as an entertainer rather than a journalist, wrung an admission of guilt out of the former president and thus brought a kind of closure to one of the most embarrassing episodes in American political history.
It's hard to say what future audiences, or even contemporary audiences too young to remember the Nixon era first hand, might make of this version of those events. As the playwright himself points out, there are substantial differences between the actual sequence of events leading up to the interviews and his engrossing script, which has a carefully calculated structure of emotional crescendo and decrescendo, richly imagined ensemble scenes, and one spectacular monolog in the form of a drunken midnight phone call in which Nixon (or at least Morgan's character called Nixon) throws open the gates of his soul. And, again as Mr. Morgan admits up front, there is no effort to take political sides in the never-quite-resolved debate over Nixon's character or his effectiveness as leader of the free world.
Thus, it is easy to imagine contemporary audiences leaving the theater slightly puzzled at the thirst for vengeance expressed by the play's narrator, James Reston, the man who discovered the few moments of White House tape that Frost used to bring Nixon to his knees. Those who remember the evil that Nixon henchmen Haldeman and Ehrlichman, John Dean and Charles Colson committed in the name of party loyalty may find Reston's motives less obscure, but these men get only passing mention in the play, and Morgan's Nixon is so beautifully three dimensional that it is impossible not to feel a certain sympathy for him. The play's (and the real story's) climactic moment, when Frost's incisive questions unleash Nixon's burden of guilt, may seem to contemporary audiences almost equivocal, rather than as it must seem to those who remember a triumphal moment that restored a jaded nation's faith in justice.
This presentation is enhanced by a stunning portrayal of Nixon by Rep veteran Keith Jochim, who seems to be channeling the often charming, always bright, but also always devious and self-serving former president instead of playing a role. The force of Jochim's performance is such that Jeff Talbott, who does a more than creditable job with the mercurial David Frost, and Jim Wisniewski, who brings the peppery Reston to convincing life, seem to be overplaying at times in response.
Mr. Morgan's cast is unexpectedly large; in addition to the central characters and their respective associates, there are cameo appearances by such disparate historical characters as tennis champion Evonne Goolagong, master Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar (in a deftly comic turn by actor Matt Landers) and Caroline Cushing, a young woman (who may or may not be based on a real person) whom Frost picks up on his flight to the States, plus a handful of television studio hands, cameramen, and so on. As is always the case under the sure hand of director Steven Woolf, this ensemble works flawlessly, and the pacing is brisk; the show runs more than an hour and a half in a single act, but never seems to falter.
In retrospect, Frost/Nixon has a great deal in common with David Hare's play The Vertical Hour, which the Rep did last year. Both are looks at American attitudes and ideas in comparison to British ideas, or at least perspectives, and in both, the American side comes off as sympathetic but ultimately misguided. At any rate, Mr. Morgan has given us an absorbing and thought-provoking play, and Mr. Woolf and his forces have mounted a memorable production of it.
Frost/Nixon will run through September 28 on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton Theater. For ticket information call 314-968-4925 or visit the Rep's website at www.repstl.org.