The set-up: There's an emotion rushing through Company OnStage's bumpy production of Peter Morgan's quasi-historical Frost/Nixon that is, if not unintentional, quite unexpected - sympathy for Richard Milhous Nixon, our disgraced, Machiavellian 37th President.
High crimes and misdemeanors, including burglary, hush money for witnesses, suborning perjury, willfully disregarding subpoenas, wiretapping the press, and stonewalling the American public, occurred inside the oval office under his direct commands.
Facing the wrath of Congress and an outraged citizenry, Nixon, alone, miserable, and ofttimes drunk (so it's said) resigned his office in 1974 before imminent impeachment proceedings could be brought against him in Congress. He's the only President to walk out of his job. Only his most loyal staff members were sorry to see him board that helicopter that whisked him out of Washington. Later pardoned by Gerald Ford, Nixon never atoned nor stood trial.
Clouded forever by the Watergate scandal, "Tricky Dick," for all his historic international coups, remains our most divisive president, most loathed and least admired. Sympathy is not for him.
The execution: Morgan's play entertainingly recounts the famous interviews the British TV personality David Frost conducted with him in 1977. Broadcast in four installments, the one-on-one shows remain television's most watched interviews. With some disregard for historical fact, Morgan's play flits in chronological order as it sets these two protagonists on a collision course: the washed-up lightweight personality known as a softball interviewer of celebrities and showbiz types against the ultimate devious, crafty, crooked politician.
Frost (Dano Colón) wants to "get" him and make him confess his sins; Nixon (Russell Snow) wants to rehabilitate his tarnished image and get his respect back. Both guys are damaged goods. The convoluted personal negotiations, TV contracts and broadcast rights, the scrambling for advertisers are played for maximum frat-boy humor and wily dramatic effect. The build-up to the "Watergate" segment, saved for last by Morgan, but aired first in reality, is suspenseful, as each background team watches the telecast on monitors on opposite sides of the stage.
Frost's side includes crusading newspaperman James Reston (James Henderson), our Greek chorus narrator and voice of righteous indignation; ABC news producer Bob Zelnick (John Zipay, delightfully robust); and Frost compatriot John Birt (Caleb Walker); Nixon's aide-de-camp is ramrod stiff Marine Colonel Jack Brennan (Wayne White). The opposing forces whack it out during the interviews, struggling to maintain control of who's on top.
At first Frost seems inadequate to the task, letting Nixon dodge and weave and, yes, stonewall, but then, like the cavalry riding to the rescue, Reston unearths a damning taped conversation between Nixon and White House counsel Colson, conveniently overlooked by all. This leads to Frost's "get" and a weaselly confession, of sorts, from Nixon.
Snow plays Nixon as awkward, a bit bumbling, but slyly devious. It's not quite the Nixon we love to hate, but underneath is that desperate need to be "in," to show those elitist bastards that he's still got it. His drunk phone call on the eve of the Watergate taping session brings Nixon's inner demons screaming to the surface. This scene, shaded with Snow's nuance, is a definite "get." As self-doubting Frost, Colón ably conveys the young man's own prickly awkwardness, his preening need to be among the A-list, his ache for a comeback. He needs to be "in" as much as Nixon.
However, the production directed by Susan Salter, which should scamper during its intermissionless 90 minutes, trips up with incessant blackouts to facilitate the constantly changing scenes: airplane seats must be shoved off stage, podiums must be removed, and, most imaginatively, tropical-print sheets draped over the existing furniture to transform the chairs into Casa Pacifica. The play's flow stops dead. And I wish the video projections of the interview were less hazy and dreary mid-shot. Frost's show was all tight close-ups, with Nixon trapped in the frame, the better to reveal his darting eyes and unconscious body language.
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Hollywood's wizard agent Swifty Lazar, germ-phobic and as tricky as Nixon, is oily portrayed by John Kaiser; and Frost's girlfriend Caroline, though ill-used as a character, is pleasantly limned by Bailey Hampton. Ricky Rojas, Lydia Jackson, and Kristie Schuh double as Nixon valvet Manolo and camera man; stewardess and waitress; and makeup assistant and party guest.
The verdict: Contrary to the joy of Frost's team in forcing a confession, Nixon came off in the interviews with surprising dignity, if slippery motive. He apologized for the "mistakes" of Watergate but never confessed to anything other than letting the country down and, most shocking of all, "Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."
Nixon side-stepped with dexterous aplomb and masterful deviousness. Morgan might see victory, we see sympathy for the devil.
Frost/Nixon continues through February 8 at Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square. Purchase tickets online a www.companyonstage.org or call 713-726-1219. $15-$18.