History Becomes Entertainment in Frost/Nixon

The only modern presidential drama that comes close to 2008 happened in 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned in the shame of Watergate. Never mind that he didn't admit to any wrongdoing. Americans would never feel the same about the office Nixon tarnished.

It would take three years before Nixon told the world he was sorry. Ironically, his admission happened during a series of sit-down interviews in 1977, between Nixon and a man he considered to be a lightweight — British talk-show host David Frost.

These stunning interviews (you can watch them on YouTube) and the events that led up to them are at the center of Peter Morgan's Tony-nominated Frost/Nixon, on tour here in Houston with Stacy Keach as the disgraced politician. Morgan knows a lot about turning history into entertaining drama. His scripts include The Other Boleyn Girl and The Queen. Frost/Nixon is a smart, testosterone-driven roller-coaster ride of a play that captures all the strange grace of fallen men at their most vulnerable.

The long one-act introduces us to polyester-wearing, preening David Frost (Alan Cox is pitch-perfect as the '70s gadfly) looking for a way to restart his career. Having lost his American audience, the has-been ends up in Australia but hungers to get back to the States, where the real white-knuckle, competitive market is. He wants to be taken seriously even if he's done nothing to deserve it. This is the '70s, after all, long before the boundaries between journalists and entertainers got so blurred we can hardly tell the difference anymore. He decides he's going to interview Nixon. Even more amazing, he's going to get Nixon to admit he's done wrong.

To that end, he assembles a group of men who will help him with research and find advertising money to make it happen. The most fiery of the group is Jim Reston (Brian Sgambati), a Nixon-hating crusader who makes Nixon's confession his mission. Add in the difficulty Frost has in finding funds, and we start to see some very desperate men.

On the other end of the conflict is Nixon himself. He and his assistant Jack Brennan (Ted Koch) consider the interviews Frost has offered and decide they could be Nixon's comeback. These scenes are some of the most powerful in the play, especially since we know what's going to happen. Hearing Nixon discuss his real longing to get back to Washington, to get back his reputation, is oddly moving. And the scenes become even more complex when Nixon talks money. He demands an exorbitant amount of cash from Frost (who initially pays from his own pocket) for doing the interviews. So Nixon is at once sympathetic and repulsive, and Keach captures it all in a performance filled with depth and majesty. Between Morgan's smart writing and Keach's emotionally complex performance, we meet a Nixon who is worthy of our admiration, sympathy and disdain.

The strongest scenes happen when the two men actually sit down to the interviews, which Nixon initially takes charge of. The four interviews are topic-driven, with talk of Watergate saved for the end. At first, Frost is completely overpowered by the oily intelligence of the ex-president. And Frost has a lot on the line, including his money, reputation and show (he's lost the Australian market while he's been busy preparing for Nixon). If he doesn't find a way into Nixon's psyche, Frost will be finished. In the eleventh hour, it's Reston who saves the day with a smoking gun of information that gives Frost his in.

The building tension in this production sneaks up on you. Christopher Oram's set, with its enormous dark walls and backdrop of video screens showing multiple images of Keach's Nixon close-up, supports both the political pomp of the moment and the frenetic energy of television. Michael Grandage's direction moves the characters quickly over the landscape of history, then finds a way to slow it all down when the lights shine on Nixon, who speaks with careful deliberation and even eloquence. Keach is mesmerizing as a man who's both powerfully presidential and shockingly corrupt. See Frost/Nixon and understand how we became a nation of cynics.

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Lee Williams