If someone described a play dealing with the incestuous intertwining of politics and show business, checkbook journalism, accountability in government and a U.S. president obstinately out of touch with the world and dialoguing with himself, you might guess the timeframe is now. Guess again. Examining the machinations behind British talkshow host David Frost’s 1977 TV interviews with Richard Nixon, Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon” knowingly amplifies the episode through a contemporary prism. A hit in London, Michael Grandage’s lucid production burnishes the play’s merits as stage writing, but there’s no question about the potency of Frank Langella and Michael Sheen’s blazing performances.
In films like “The Queen,” “The Last King of Scotland” and “Longford,” Morgan has carved a niche for himself by getting personal with power, creating smart entertainment by exploring the vulnerable human characters behind public figures. His first stage play turns the potentially dry docudrama of a disgraced former president’s unexpected public apology into lively sociopolitical reflection.
If it feels like a two-character piece padded into a multirole play with too much expository direct address from twin narrators (one in each camp), the rich shadings given to those two characters are no small compensation. The complexity of the portraits of two adversaries equally hungry for public redemption and the potential for further development of background and supporting players suggest the material might benefit from the more intimately detailed canvas of the bigscreen. (Universal acquired rights to the play in September, with Morgan scheduled to adapt for director Ron Howard.)
While Nixon was controversially pardoned for his role in the Watergate scandal by successor Gerald Ford and was buried with full honors in 1994, for many the former commander in chief and his administration stood for greed, treachery, moral corruption and the sad effectiveness of lies in public office. That history might make some audiences bristle at Morgan’s humanizing approach, mirrored in Langella’s riveting depiction of Nixon as a brooding, funny, tragic giant of a man whose powerful charisma and authority are underscored by just a hint of malevolence.
There’s no attempt to condone the wrongdoing that hastened the 37th U.S. president’s exit from office, but the play mines poignancy from the downfall of a man robbed of his purpose when his political life was severed.
In his infamous Checkers speech 25 years before the Frost interviews, Nixon became a pioneer among American politicians in the use of television to win over a skeptical public. The great irony is that the same medium ultimately was the instrument of his chastening.
While in 1977 Nixon craved a platform to cleanse his image and reboot his political life, Morgan posits that Frost was no less in need of a rebirth. His New York show had been dropped by the network and he was reduced to doing celebrity puff chat on Australian TV. Sheen deftly cloaks this hunger beneath a mask of playboy insouciance, puffing on a cigar, sipping champagne and flirting with a fellow passenger as he flies into Los Angeles to negotiate terms with Nixon.
Nailing Frost as just a notch or two above Paris Hilton, one character quotes a radio profile: “What made you exceptional, they said — was that you seemed to have achieved great fame without possessing any discernible quality.” While his coup de grace with Nixon is largely revealed to be a lucky break based on someone else’s research, it’s to Sheen’s credit that he manages to embrace the lightweight aspects of the journalist yet subtly outline his instinctual prowess as a television animal. This puts the contest between Frost and the more intellectually dexterous Nixon on equal footing.
The behind-the-scenes dealings are fascinating as Frost scrambles to lock in a network commitment and secure sponsors, putting up his own money to bankroll the seemingly doomed endeavor and pay Nixon’s fat fee. But the on-air showdown is the juiciest part of the drama, played out in massive closeup on the bank of vintage TV screens positioned high on Christopher Oram’s sleek wood-paneled set and used at other times for scene-setting footage.
Although the outcome of the interviews is known, Morgan has injected his chronicle with the suspense of a boxing match, with Frost’s research team on the sidelines sweating as the first three rounds go to the supremely evasive Nixon. The TV screens are used to thrilling effect as the devastation of his entrapment plays out over Langella’s face.
Morgan has a frustrating tendency to spell out salient points that any audience should be attentive enough to deduce for itself — having his narrators step forward, for example, to identify key moments when first Frost and then Nixon seem beaten, or articulating Frost’s savvy at skating the line between politics and showbiz when we’ve seen him in action.
But in an otherwise thinly developed gallery of peripheral characters, the two figures delivering those narrative assists — cynical liberal intellectual Jim Reston and Nixon’s loyal former chief of staff, Col. Jack Brennan — are sharply drawn by Stephen Kunken and Corey Johnson, respectively.
Making his Broadway debut, Donmar Warehouse a.d. Grandage has crafted a lean and dynamic production that never puts a foot wrong. And while it’s easy to imagine the play seeming more fragile with less resourceful actors, Sheen and Langella could hardly be better.
With his bouffant hair, tight ’70s slacks and bulging tummy wrapped in figure-hugging shirts, Sheen is an unlikely candidate here to register as sexy, yet the innate charms of his Frost at all times outweigh his questionable wardrobe (nice work again from Oram) and convictions. He brilliantly underplays both the character’s smarmy brashness and his faint air of desperation.
Sheen’s nuanced work as Tony Blair in “The Queen” was vastly underappreciated amid all the hosannas heaped upon Helen Mirren, and he risks a similar slight against the formidable Langella. Grandage nonetheless maintains a keen balance that serves both actors.
He may not physically resemble Nixon, but Langella illuminates the man in ways that go far deeper than mimicry. He does the hunched shoulders, the pouting underbite, the ambling, simian gait, the ceaseless gesticulating and the rumbling voice — even the trademark V sign. But the actor’s insights take up where most imitations leave off in a performance that’s mesmerizing in its command.
In Morgan’s most fanciful invention, a monologue delivered by Langella with penetrating flashes of wounded hubris, Nixon calls Frost in his hotel room one night before the final interview after a couple drinks too many. Nixon ventures the opinion that both men are the victims of snobbery, driven by the desire to prove their critics wrong.
“If we allow ourselves a glimpse into that shadowy place we call our soul, isn’t that why we’re here?” ponders Nixon. That aching need for validation that feeds almost all fame is the force that makes Morgan’s play tick.