Peter Morgan’s powerhouse drama Frost/Nixon — which enjoyed a successful West End and Broadway run, and was turned into an equally successful film version — is now at Bay Street Theater, featuring Daniel Gerroll as David Frost and Harris Yulin as former President Richard Nixon.
At the soul of the show — based on the famous interviews which aired three years after Nixon’s resignation while Watergate was still turning a knife in America’s heart — is the story of two men desperate to be taken seriously. Frost, a somewhat smarmy and solicitous British talk-show host, wants to break Nixon on air, but the ability to do so just isn’t in his wheelhouse. And Nixon, bored after a lifetime in politics, whiling away the time at his oceanfront retreat, wants a chance to possibly exonerate himself . . . if the money’s good enough.
The money is good enough, and the result is a series of interviews conducted in Beverly Hills over the course of a month in 1977. As Nixon tells Frost in a private phone call toward the end of the interviews, only one of them will remain in the limelight, while the other is consigned to the wilderness.
Frost puts everything on the line for his shot at real television journalism and assembles his crack team: his producer John Birt (Price Waldman), a new girlfriend Caroline (Danielle Slavick), journalist and editor Bob Zelnick (Brian Keane), and author and researcher Jim Reston (Christian Conn), who acts as a quasi-narrator for the events.
Narrator? More like an emcee. Director Sarna Lapine’s version of Frost/Nixon takes place in a suggested boxing ring on Wilson Chin’s set, as the two heavyweights adjourn to their separate corners to either rejoice in their successful jabs or lick their wounds and regroup.
In Nixon’s corner are agent Swifty Lazar (Stephen Lee Anderson) and Jack Brennan (Rich Topol), Nixon’s former chief of staff and most dedicated follower. The cast is top-notch, and although historians might facepalm once or twice at Morgan’s rearrangement of actual events, as a dramatization, Frost/Nixon is a champion.
Once the sparring starts, Nixon — who was famous for not being good on camera, overly-sweaty and a bit of a cold fish — rises to the occasion, embattled and emboldened, channeling his inner trial lawyer and delivering endless self-serving answers to Frost’s questions. Even during the countdown to camera, Nixon is able to offer little jabs to unhinge the underprepared talk show host.
If Frost and his team think Nixon would go gently into that good night, offering up a confession and an apology, an answer to Watergate, they need to return to the drawing board and come up with a different strategy.
The play moves at a lightning speed (an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission) and Gerroll and Yulin deliver wonderful, provocative performances as Frost and Nixon, two men who understand that television can make or break you with just one closeup.
Yulin’s Nixon is absolutely original; he manages to capture all of Nixon’s strengths and inadequacies without ever once resorting to a cheap imitation. Gerroll is able to jump his character from the bon vivant celebrity seeker, a “performer,” to an earnest interviewer who manages to cajole from a former president a denouement that not only can help lay Nixon’s soul to rest but can begin the healing of the country.
A bank of televisions, along with video cameras and other technological contrivances, which are used by lighting designer Ken Billington, sound designer Josh Schmidt, and video designer Tai Yarden, offer the audience a chance to sometimes see and hear the activities on stage up-close, to experience the interviews as they appeared to the original television audiences. As Reston says, “The first and greatest sin of the deception of television is that it simplifies.”
Although Frost/Nixon is an oversimplification of the times and the interviews themselves, it touts an important lesson in a taut, engaging fashion provided by a wonderful ensemble: Even the largest lion can be taken down by a brave and determined mouse. The play runs through July 22.
Tickets and more information can be found at www.baystreet.org.