Monday, January 12, 2009

Theater review: 'Frost/Nixon,' verbal sparring match over Watergate guilt

Wynn Harmon, left, as David Frost, and Bruce Sabath
as former President Richard Nixon, in Frost/Nixon.

By Hap Erstein

Playwright-screenwriter Peter Morgan understands where history leaves off and drama has to take over. The difference between the two is what makes Frost/Nixon such a gripping evening of theater.

With his acclaimed play about the videotaped interviews between a fading television talk show personality and a resigned, but unremorseful American president, Morgan pulls off the same trick he did in the 2006 film The Queen. With scrupulous research, he brings to life iconic characters from recent times and when the facts fail him, he resorts to highly dramatic fiction.

In the case of Frost/Nixon, there is plenty of recorded evidence of the 1977 verbal sparring match in which David Frost risked his reputation and $2 million of his own money to gain a public confession for the Watergate cover-up from wily Richard Nixon. But Morgan understands that some of the most compelling events happened behind closed doors and no one can dispute the dramatic license he takes. The result is both cerebral and visceral theater of the first order.

No wonder Boca Raton’s Caldwell Theatre snapped up the performance rights to the play’s Florida debut, though waiting a bit longer might have helped. No amount of time will fade the image of “Tricky Dick” Nixon for those who lived through the ’70s, but the production suffers — perhaps unfairly — from comparison to the Ron Howard-directed film version of Morgan’s tale, currently in movie theaters.

Most actors avoid direct impersonation when portraying a figure like Nixon, lest they drift into caricature. Still, Bruce Sabath is making little effort to evoke our 37th president, offering instead a cooler, more comfortable in his own skin character. When Tom Wahl as one of Frost’s coaches mimics Nixon in a mock interview, it is the Nixon we know, not the one onstage, and the difference is disconcerting.

On Broadway and in the film, Nixon dominates the work, as Morgan presumably intended. At the Caldwell, Wynn Harmon evokes the preening, apolitical Frost quite well and the balance of the play shifts in his direction.

Although the play’s title suggests a two-man evening, Frost/Nixon has a cast of 10 and almost twice that number of characters. The action jets about from Australia to the skies above the Pacific to San Clemente, Calif., as the title duo square off in a struggle that only one of them can win.

In Frost’s corner is rabidly anti-Nixon academic James Reston Jr. (Michael St. Pierre), veteran reporter Bob Zelnick (Wahl) and television producer John Birt (Robert Herrle), partisans who grow critical of Frost as they watch Nixon worm his way out of the questions lobbed his way. On Nixon’s side is his fiercely loyal chief of staff, Col. Jack Brennan (Jake Molzan), and his mercenary literary agent, Swifty Lazar (Peter Haig). On the margins of the play is Frost’s girlfriend (Margery Lowe), who feels injected into the story for little reason.

Tim Bennett’s scenic design is sparse and sleek, to allow the numerous cinematic location changes. Instead, the stage is dominated by Sean Lawson’s projections and live closed-circuit video of the interviews.

Despite some of director Michael Hall’s casting missteps, it is hard not to become involved in the central tug-of-war or to root for the confession that the nation so needed. Nor is it hard to see a link between this period more than 30 years ago and today, as another disgraced president prepares to leave office, perhaps to slip into the history books without being held accountable for his own abuses of power.

FROST/NIXON, Caldwell Theatre Co., 7901 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton. Continuing through Feb. 8. Tickets: $36-$42. Call: (561) 241-7432 or (877) 245-7432.

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