By Peter Morgan
Directed by Michael Grandage
A touring production presented by The Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Richard M. Nixon, the disgraced former President who resigned thirty-four years ago, was well known as an equivocator and a liar, so let us not compound his felonies with anything but complete honesty. This show is a disappointment.
Peter Morgan’s play is given over to an incident on the outskirts of history: David Frost’s four-part interview with Nixon after his resignation and pardon. Although these interviews hold the promise of significant drama (mostly as reflections of the more intense dramas of Nixon’s life, presidency, criminal acts, near impeachment and resignation), Morgan consistently deflates the drama with an intrusive narrative voice, which breaks up the story flow with chunks of exposition, much in the way that the Discovery Channel narrator explains what we see on nature documentaries. Peter, it’s not necessary.
The narrative voice is that of journalist Jim Reston (here played by Brian Sgambati). Reston is an unabashed partisan, whose singular objective is to drive the final stake into the political corpse of the 37th President. To him, Nixon is a malignant creature, and the pardon which his successor issued to him robbed the American people, and in particular liberals like Reston himself, of their just revenge. His great hope is that Frost can torture Nixon into something resembling a confession during their interviews. His fear is that Nixon will exonerate himself.
You can see how using such a voice to explain the events leading up to the interviews would tend to rob those events of their complexity, and make Nixon seem like a cobra equipped with nuclear warheads. But the real Nixon, as well as the Nixon who appears in the interviews, was an immensely complicated man who appears on history’s stage as hero and villain both. On the one hand, he gave us the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act, instituted revenue-sharing, advanced school integration, normalized relationships with China and significantly reduced tensions with the Soviet Union – all events which the play acknowledges. On the other hand, he was a racist and an anti-Semite who couldn’t hold his liquor and who floated through his adult life on a seething sea of self-indulgent paranoia. Most importantly, he permitted his underlings to undertake criminal acts to advance himself politically, and then later suborned perjury to cover it up. It can be argued that Nixon was more of a liberal activist than any of his successors, excluding President-elect Obama; it can also be argued that he was psychotic. Reston is awake to none of this He is the fearless vampire slayer, set out to track the dread Nixon in his lair.
This monochromatic point of view enervates the first portion of the play, which reviews Nixon’s resignation and the decision of Frost, a British talk-show host, to try to land the interviews. Morgan takes the long way around to get to his basic points, which are that Frost needed the show in order to win the worldwide reputation he thought he deserved, that Nixon needed the money (checkbook journalism was in vogue then) and that Frost’s biggest worry (and biggest problem in raising the necessary money) was that no one would take him seriously as an interviewer. The chatty dialogue is further diminished by one-dimensional performances by the supporting actors. Sgambati’s performance as Reston is flat and without inflection. Ted Koch plays Nixon’s chief of staff Jack Brennan as a snarling, shouting attack dog, one bite away from caricature. Roxanna Hope plays Frost’s love interest, but her initial encounter with him on a plane to San Clemente is so without sparks that we are astonished to see them, later in the play, apparently living together. (Stephen Rowe does a nice turn, though, as Nixon’s negotiator, superagent Irving “Swifty” Lazar.)
Things step up considerably when we get to the actual interviews, in large part because of superior performances by Alan Cox as Frost and Stacy Keach as Nixon, but also because the dialogue largely comes from history, which is a better writer than Peter Morgan. Keach does not resemble Nixon in the least (he looks more like J. Edgar Hoover) and does not assay a full-on Nixon impersonation. Ed Gero was closer in Round House’s Nixon’s Nixon. But Keach’s approximation is evocative, and our memories and imaginations can do the rest. What he excels at is playing a man whose good and evil impulses have fused into an indigestible whole, and watching him unravel in response to Frost’s tentative questioning is both funny and moving. He stonewalls and filibusters (Frost, attempting to find a way to the man’s insides, asks him whether his resignation was the most emotional moment in his life; Nixon replies by recounting every emotional moment he ever had: “I remember when Eisenhower died…And then there was my daughter Tricia’s wedding…”) But when he is finally compelled to confront the magnitude of what he has done – “I let down the country” – his face becomes such a montage of shame and sadness and self-pity that it is impossible not to feel sorrow for him, and for ourselves.
Cox’s character is, by several degrees of magnitude, the less consequential person in this two-man setup, but Cox does a compelling job of giving him a fully rounded personality. He radiates Frost’s lightness and cheery good humor, and presents him as an agreeable fellow who is composed in equal parts of ambition for celebrity and for amiable female companionship. He never pretends that Frost is something that he is not, and for the emotional honesty he brings to the role we end up liking Frost, and Cox as Frost.
I wish the rest of this play measured up to the quality of Keach and Cox, or to the quality of the superb technical work. Neil Austin’s lighting design is magnificent. It expands the already-capacious Eisenhower Theater stage so much that it seems you could fit the entire world in it. There is an impressive video screen hanging above the action; when Frost is interviewing Nixon, we can see them close up on it, as we might see them on our televisions at home. Otherwise, it is in use reinforcing the story, particularly during scene changes. Jon Driscoll is responsible for this swell contraption. Finally, Adam Cork’s underlying music is startlingly appropriate, and fun to listen to as well.
One final note about the refurbished Eisenhower Theater, addressed to my fellow widebodies. In addition to being beautiful and acoustically satisfactory, the theater now presents us with seats which fit. Glory, glory, hallelujah, amen.
Running time: One hour, fifty minutes (no intermission)
When: Tuesdays through Sundays until November 30. All evening shows at 7.30. There are also 1.30 matinees on Saturdays and Sundays, and on Wednesday, November 23.
Where: John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, D.C.
Tickets: $25-$80. Go to the website.