A thriller-like retelling of how the only man ever to resign the U.S. presidency played out his guilt before the largest-ever TV audience for a news interview would have been enough. As much about the rise of talkshow host David Frost as it is about the fall of Richard Nixon, his play is the story of two men, both in love with power. Their addiction to it is made all the more engrossing by Michael Grandage's taut, perfectly cast production.

The essence of Peter Morgan’s riveting “Frost/Nixon” is in the title. A thriller-like retelling of how the only man ever to resign the U.S. presidency played out his guilt before the largest-ever TV audience for a news interview would have been enough. But Morgan’s sights are set considerably higher. As much about the rise of talkshow host David Frost as it is about the fall of Richard Nixon, his play is the story of two men, both in love with power. Their addiction to it is made all the more engrossing by Michael Grandage’s taut, perfectly cast production.

Nixon neither trusted nor fully understood television (his tendency to sweat made him look unattractive onscreen). But his presidency was in the pre-multichannel era when a single TV moment was watched by millions. Indeed, 400 million people watched Nixon’s resignation, a moment captured in the play’s sharply staged opening.

Morgan is dealing with historical fact, but with an eye and ear for what fiction — and good actors — can reveal. As the TV crew make their final adjustments, Frank Langella’s Nixon attempts gallows humor. He singles out the official White House photographer for taking so many shots. “I’m afraid he’ll catch me picking my nose,” he jests. “He wouldn’t print that, though, would you, Ollie?” Beneath the line’s fake bonhomie, Langella shoots a terrifyingly malevolent look at the hapless snapper that instantly fixes his character’s power and authority.

Langella’s unfaltering journey from paranoid, bullish confidence to painful, ruined hope is balanced by the mercurial Michael Sheen, who brings a well-observed nasal charm edged with more than a little smarm to the freewheeling Frost. His flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants manner makes complete sense of the decision by Nixon’s agent, Swifty Lazar (Kerry Shale), to grant four one-hour interviews.

“It’s gonna be a b-i-i-i-g wet kiss,” Lazar tells Nixon. “A valentine. This guy is so grateful to be getting this at all he’ll pitch puffballs all night and pay half a million dollars for the privilege.”

You can see his point. At that time, Frost was a talkshow host famed for his lack of convictions: The man had never voted in his life. What no one truly realized, not even those in the Frost camp, was that he lived and breathed television.

It had served him well, and he had been as famous as the celebrities he interviewed. Morgan nails this point in a speech to Frost’s unofficial producer, John Birt (Rufus Wright). “Success in America is unlike success anywhere else. And the emptiness, when it’s gone … and the sickening thought that it’s left you … that it’s gone somewhere else … to someone else and will never come back.”

Frost fails badly with the first three interviews, but in the tense run-up to the final one, he receives an unexpected phone call. He thinks it’s his girlfriend (a marvelously poised Lydia Leonard, who fills the role with tender observation) but it turns out to be Nixon.

This is Morgan at his most imaginative. The notion that the two men are locked into gladiatorial combat is made explicit as they jockey for success. This scene alone justifies the play as drama for both the sentiments expressed and the supercharged, unspoken subtext devoured by the audience.

Further demonstration of the production’s power comes during the interviews themselves. Christopher Oram’s typically spare but eloquent design provides a wood-lined back wall with a few pieces of furniture whisked on and off. Neil Austin’s lighting allows auds to see not just the two combatants etched dramatically out of darkness but also their live TV selves splashed across ’70s-style TV sets grouped within a picture frame on the back wall. It’s a tribute to the presence and power of both actors that although one clocks them onscreen, it is far more exciting watching them in the flesh.

Elliot Cowan plays Frost’s most politically committed researcher, Jim Reston, who also acts as the narrator — a device ensuring that even the exposition (and there’s a lot) is rooted in character. Reston is not just a man with a viewpoint; he also has a nice sense of humor. Away from home and stuck in a hotel, Reston asks, “Is there anything in life as depressing as watching a porno the second time around?”

For a play about a famously humorless president, Morgan uses a winning amount of humor, again quelling expectations of history on legs. When Nixon’s frighteningly loyal, ex-military head of staff Jack Brennan (Corey Johnson) tells him Frost is staying in the Beverly Hills Hotel, Langella’s Nixon rummages in his pocket. “I’ve got some numbers somewhere of a few fellas we could send in. Cubans. With CIA training …”

His timing is so good that it’s only when horror floods Johnson’s face that Langella reveals Nixon is attempting a joke.

Morgan smartly refuses to draw contemporary parallels. However, you don’t have to be a card-carrying Democrat to spot similarities between the Nixon White House attacks on the American media’s alleged bias and those made under Bush.

In the author’s note in the program and published text, Morgan explains that having himself interviewed most of the participants, he can attest to the accuracy of the events described. Yet he states that he thinks of the play as fiction. That he has been unable to resist using his imagination is what turns the work from acted reportage into suspense-filled theater. He pulls off a considerable coup, persuading the audience that history is happening right here, right now.

Auds were sufficiently intrigued by the subject matter and cast to have sold out its three-month run ahead of opening. That Grandage’s fleet zinger of a production should move to the West End, or even more likely, Broadway, is less a matter of conjecture than of inevitability.

Frost/Nixon

Donmar Warehouse, London; 249 seats; £29 $55 top

Production

A Donmar Warehouse presentation in association with Matthew Byam Shaw of a play in one act by Peter Morgan. Directed by Michael Grandage.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Christopher Oram; lighting, Neil Austin; original music and sound, Adam Cork; video, Jon Driscoll, production stage manager, Patrick Molony. Opened Aug. 21, 2006. Reviewed Aug 17. Running time: 1 HOUR, 55 MIN.

Cast

Richard Nixon - Frank Langella David Frost - Michael Sheen Jim Reston - Elliot Cowan Jack Brennan - Corey Johnson John Birt - Rufus Wright Bob Zelnick - Vincent Marzello Caroline Cushing - Lydia Leonard Swifty Lazar - Kerry Shale Evonne Goolagong - Kate Roscoe Manolo Sanchez - Amerjit Deu
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