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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Jeremy Webb, Allen McCullough and Cast
Photo by Kevin Berne
A sweaty upper lip that many believe helped sink his first presidential bid. A resignation announced in his West Wing office in order to avoid sure impeachment. Raised, waving arms with fingers of both hands in a "V"—in the past given in both victory and as an act of defiance and one last time, given as a defeated farewell. A long-overdue, surprise confession to a foreign, late-night TV host.

Perhaps no president's legacy has been more emblazoned through the lens of a television camera into the collective memory of a nation than that of Richard Milhous Nixon. In his 2006 play and 2008 movie, Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan (with a generous dose of literary license) creates with cameras rolling an incredulous string of events that leads in the play's version of history to Richard Nixon's admitting in almost a whisper to British TV star David Frost, "I was involved in a cover-up."

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is currently staging its own Frost/Nixon in a version where many in the audience probably have at least seen the Oscar nominated movie if not the play, where most if not all know the play's outcome, and where everyone will still find themselves breathless and on the edge of their seats as the tension in the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts meteorically rises just as those same words are finally said.

Along with a superb cast who have no problem convincing us they are the famous people they portray, the real stars of this TheatreWorks production are Leslie Martinson and David Lee Cuthbert, director and scenic/media designer, respectively. No fewer than thirty-five television-shaped screens form a massive backdrop with roving TV cameras often projecting live, close-up shots of the proceedings on stage. Those same screens serve as projected scenic backdrops of vintage film clips or network talking heads. Video projections on roving panels allow offices, hotel rooms, and airplane interiors to appear/disappear in a blink. The seamless shifts in scenes move at a pace that increases the sense of urgency while never seeming too rushed, with the director even allowing pauses of complete silence as principals and we have a chance to reflect on the gravity and incredulity of what is occurring. The result is a seventy-minute replay of both well-known public and unseen background scenes of a history that eerily, disturbingly feels like it could be a precursor to what is about again to occur—but perhaps this time in an even more bizarre manner.

With hands massive and familiarly emphatic in their movement, a walk whose amble is immediately recognizable, and a voice whose words have that mouth full of mashed potatoes sound that only could be Nixon's, Allen McCullough captures so many of the president's defining characteristics while at the same time bringing to light aspects few of us would ever associate with Tricky Dick. With only a few hints of the famed anger we have all read about, the playwright and the actor team to surprise us with other, lesser-known sides of this president many still love to hate.

For example, employing true gentility and graciousness, our Nixon charms David Frost's girlfriend Caroline Cushing (Elena Wright), acting fatherly as he chitchats amiably on their first meeting. The Nixon before us can be funny and self-deprecating about his sweaty upper lip and can be naively awkward as he wonders in a silly voice to David if the Brit's expensive shoes are not "too effeminate." As much as many of us who lived through the Nixon years of lies and atrocities do not want to admit, we begin to find that there are aspects of this Nixon we almost like and come close to admiring, even weakening to a point of feeling some sympathy. While we cannot help but root on David Frost's efforts to force the inevitable confession from this guilty president, when the admission comes, Allen McCullough's now-relieved Nixon is someone we almost want to hug and say, "Thank you."

The unlikely key to this improbable set of interviews with an outcome no one believed could happen is jet-setter, socialite-extraordinaire, and talk show host to the likes of Hollywood starlets and rock bands, David Frost. Jeremy Webb brings enough aspects of the flashiness and shallowness of such a TV star that we can understand why the journalistic world of 1977 (along with potential TV sponsors and funders) all turned up their noses in disbelief and disgust at the idea of David Frost interviewing Nixon. But Mr. Webb's Frost brings an inner sense of confidence and maybe just the right amount of cockiness that somehow convinces us that, yes, we can see how the real David Frost could have been the one to take on Richard Nixon.

Director and playwright again combine forces to orchestrate a near-intimate relationship between these two adversaries—one that is best illustrated in a late-night (and totally fictitious) phone call from Nixon to Frost just hours before the next day's last and all-revealing interview. In one of the best scenes of the entire play, both actors take the cues from script and director and create a sequence funny, touching, and humanely haunting.

But during the actual interviews, the heat rises. Called breaks appear like those given warring boxers in a ring as they go to their corners to receive coaching and commands from their managers. In Nixon's corner is Jack Brennan (played by Craig Marker), the extremely straight-laced, blindly loyal, and quick-of-temper chief of staff for the ex-president. David Frost's background team of particularly brilliant strategists and real-time interview coaches consists of Stephen Muterspaugh as Robert Zelnick, Adam Shonkwiler as John Birt, and Kenny Toll as the firebrand Jim Reston. The last member also serves as our ongoing narrator, bringing his rapid, excited rat-a-tat-tat to bear, leaving no doubt in our minds the reason he has joined David Frost's team: "I want to give Nixon the trial he never had."

Jim Reston's initial reluctance to help Frost is because he immediately understands that the world of serious-minded journalism is being invaded by late-night, mindless television—perhaps understanding that once invaded, it's never to be the same again. Somewhat sleazy, nasal-voiced "Swifty" Lazar (Patrick Russell) is everything Jim Reston fears most. He is the Hollywood agent who solidifies the deal between a Nixon who is looking for a safe way to redeem himself by reminding the world of all the good things he did as president and a Frost whose career badly needs a boost and an American audience. The collapsing gap between journalism and showbiz that the play's Jim Reston may have foreseen is, as we now know, a gap today that is practically non-existent.

A legitimate criticism of Peter Morgan's work is that productions of the play appear like a docu-drama—as is the case of the excellent, quite realistic TheatreWorks production. In fact, the play is a fictional account based rather loosely on the facts of what really happened. The "confession" did not occur on April 17, 1972, exactly as quoted in the play, and did not come about due to David Frost's interviewing skills or his team's investigative prowess. The admission that Nixon actually provided was, "I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life," with that coming only after Nixon's team—during a break called by Frost—convinced the resigned-in-disgrace president that he needed to show some humility to the American people in order to position himself for the kind of active, contributing life he wanted in his post-presidency years (which in fact he was able to do, overall).

Given the number of years between now and the events being portrayed, what would have been helpful in the TheatreWorks program is an inclusion of "fact versus fiction" piece, or at least a warning that "Remember, this is a fictionalized version of the events that actually occurred." For those who take the time to Google "fact and fiction of Frost/Nixon," answers appear quite readily; but the dramaturgist could have provided those differences for the audience.

Even with its distortion of many facts, the relevance of this bit of fictionalized history being replayed in an outstanding production on the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley stage in 2019 is not lost by anyone in attendance. The parallels between the play's both true and fictionalized events forty-plus years ago and events of today are many and obvious. The real question we have on leaving: Can we actually imagine the current president ever humbly apologizing to the American people as once the then-much-despised Richard Nixon was able to do? As they say on TV, "Stay tuned."

Frost/Nixon, through February 10, 2019 at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.