Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Zao Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Chris Fidler and Michael E. Bryce
Photo by Kristy Velesko
With the United States House Select Committee getting closer and closer to the questioning of former President Trump's inner circle concerning his potential involvement in the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S Capitol building, it seems to be the perfect time for a production of Peter Morgan's 2006 drama Frost/Nixon, which lays out in both fictional and factual detail the famous televised interview between British TV journalist David Frost and Richard Nixon, the disgraced ex-President, and his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Zao Theatre's production features excellent portrayals of the actual people involved in those interviews and astute direction that brings out the humor, drama, and suspense in this well-crafted play.

The piece begins when President Nixon resigns from the presidency, then shifts three years ahead in time to focus on Frost, whose latest TV shows haven't been that successful and his U.S. series was just cancelled. Frost manages to score a series of interviews with the former president, who has moved to San Clemente, California to get away from the spotlight. Nixon is now ready to talk, if the price is right. Nixon's heavy-hitting Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar negotiates a series of interviews with Frost once he confirms they'll get more cash from Frost than the networks are offering, and both sides firm up the parameters of the interview, including how much time will be allotted to the topic of Watergate.

Morgan's play is a great depiction of this period in time and also of the cat and mouse nature of both the initial negotiations of the interviews and the interviews themselves. While Frost is constantly attempting to get Nixon in a "gotcha" moment, the former president manages to deflect and turn many of the questions to his advantage. The interviews went on to garner huge ratings and made Frost a household name. They were also famous for broadcasting Nixon's reaction to Frost's question about the legality of his actions in Watergate: "Well," Nixon said, "when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal." The statement is similar to one that Trump also made, which not only ties the play eerily to current events but, based on the outcome of the January 6th House Select Committee meetings, Trump may come to realize his actions were very much illegal.

Zao Theatre Artistic Director Michael E. Bryce is a small-framed, personable, charming, unthreatening, and soft-spoken man, and those who know him may not recognize him as the commanding, forceful, larger-than-life, and extremely powerful Nixon. While Bryce doesn’t attempt to mimic Nixon's accent, he has the cadence and vocal delivery of this famous man down quite well, along with his famous black, combed-back hairstyle with a widow's peak, and his portrayal has vast shades of depth and nuance and layers of emotion. The script provides the actor who plays Nixon with a range of great lines to deliver and moods to play and Bryce is wonderful in depicting the gamut of emotions required, from obstinate and strong to insecure and brooding. He also does a great job in his delivery of the few moments of comedy in the play.

While Morgan wrote Frost as someone who was unsure of himself and who often questioned the team of strong, intelligent people he had around him, Chris Fidler oozes charm as the gregarious, British playboy who is looking for a fast way to turn his past shortfalls into a fairly quick success. Fidler does well in depicting Frost's opportunistic nature but we also see how the impact of not having all of the funding in place for the interviews takes its toll on Frost and how the realization that he could actually draw a confession out of Nixon gives him the strength to combat the former president. Also, Fidler's British accent is very good and consistent throughout.

There is good work from Rick Davis as Jim Reston, who narrates most of the play and who, although he was a staunch critic of Nixon, finds himself tongue tied when he meets his enemy face to face. When Reston finds information that he believes will be their smoking gun, Davis' bright eyes and heightened sense of urgency perfectly portray the importance of that moment. Jeff Montgomery is staunch and forceful as Nixon's chief of staff Jack Brennan, who also provides some narration and instills a wonderful sense of protection of and care for the former president, but who also relishes with glee Nixon's dodging of Frost's pointed questions.

Tyler Galley and Adam Gobeski provide solid support as ABC News producer Bob Zelnick and British TV producer John Birt; their frustration, along with Davis', in how Frost is unable to score any points during the initial interviews is well depicted. Tom Endicott is excellent as both the overeager agent Swifty Lazar and famous TV news personality Mike Wallace. Brianne Gobeski is warm and winning as a woman Frost meets on an airplane, and Sarai Phillips-Dunlap is good in a few smaller roles

Virginia Olivieri's direction is solid, with only one small moment I wish were clearer, but that could be an issue with the script. She makes a wise decision to stage the play in one act; I have to imagine an intermission would greatly stop the momentum. Presenting it as a one hour and 45 minute one-act provides a heightened sense of urgency. Her staging also makes the interview segments into a boxing match or chess game with a perfect layer of suspense as both sides battle for the upper hand. Olivieri's direction also ensures the reactions from both Frost and Nixon's supporters during the interview segments are realistic and well acted, and she derives realistic and nuanced portrayals from the entire cast. The only small misstep is how the script isn't clear if the hand-off from Reston to Frost of the information that will become the catalyst for Nixon's famous quote is something Frost was already aware of. As it is now, it comes off as a rushed moment with a minimal reaction from Fidler to the importance of the information Frost was just given. It's possible that the script simply doesn't make it clear that Frost was already told the information from Reston, but, if this is the first time Frost was aware of it, we need to see Fidler's eye opening response and the importance of his reaction to possessing this critical piece of evidence.

Zao's new venue provides a wonderful sense of intimacy. The scenic design by Bryce and Olivieri makes good use of projections and a few pieces of movable furniture to quickly move us from one location to another. Sharyn Sheffer's lighting is very good, and the costumes from Sheffer, Brianne Gobeski, and Sarai Phillips-Dunlap are period and character appropriate. Bryce's media design provides a good introduction of the facts that proceed the events in the play and the music underscore by Gabby Olivieri adds a nice sense of suspense.

It's too early to tell if the results of the January 6th Committee meetings will end up with Trump being indicted or ending up disgraced like Nixon, but what is certain is that Zao's production of Morgan's play is vastly entertaining and richly rewarding, with a superb portrayal from Bryce as Nixon and wonderful work from the entire cast. It's also a play and a production that if you're a fan of Nixon may force you to question his actions and if you’re a critic of Nixon you may find yourself empathizing with him.

Frost/Nixon runs through August 20, 2022, at Zao Theatre, 6338 South King Ranch Rd, Gold Canyon AZ. For tickets and information or call 480-924-5122

Director: Virginia Olivieri
Scenic Design: Virginia Olivieri, Michael E. Bryce
Costume Design: Sharyn Sheffer, Brianne Gobeski, Sarai Phillips-Dunlap
Lighting Design: Sharyn Sheffer
Sound Design: John Schoenwolf
Media Design: Michael E. Bryce
Properties: Terri Parker
Underscore: Gabby Olivieri
Stage Manager: Stephanie Vlasich

Richard Nixon: Michael E. Bryce
David Frost: Chris Fidler
Jim Reston: Rick Davis
Jack Brennan: Jeff Montgomery
Bob Zelnick/ Studio Manager (Oval Office): Tyler Galley
John Birt/ Ollie: Adam Gobeski
Swifty Lazar, Mike Wallace, Technician 2, Studio Manager (Monarch Bay): Tom Endicott
Caroline Cushing, Make-Up Lady: Brianne Gobeski
Camera Operator, Evonne Goolagong, Air Stewardess, Waitress: Sarai Phillips-Dunlap