The question of whether or not scribe Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon” can survive onstage beyond the definitive production it received in London and New York from helmer Michael Grandage goes unanswered in the messy and unfocused rendition it gets at the hands of Canadian Stage Company. Based on this first North American staging not hatched from the original production, the work needs more careful handling if it’s to succeed.
Morgan’s story of how declining British talkshow host David Frost went into debt to purchase an exclusive interview with disgraced American ex-president Richard Nixon, has a simple but pleasing arc, which really only exists to allow for two massive performances in the leading roles. In a less-than-stellar production, it becomes far too obvious that most of the other roles are mouthpieces or plot drivers rather than human beings, a fact largely disguised by Grandage through skillful casting and direction.
Director Ted Dykstra (co-author and an original star of “Two Pianos, Four Hands”) is usually associated with rock musicals — which is obvious from how he has staged this piece.
Most of his invention has gone into the scene changes, which include a lot of clever video images from Jamie Nesbitt and a swingin’ ’70s jazz score from Creighton Doane. But when it comes to the actual script, Dykstra is relatively clueless.
Some of the supporting characters (Swifty Lazar, Bob Zelnick) are allowed to become broad caricatures, while others (Jim Reston, Jack Brennan) are relatively naturalistic and restrained.
The same personality disorder extends to the leads. Len Cariou, although studiously avoiding a Nixon impersonation, makes the ex-president an impressive, weighty and sympathetic character. That outsize stage presence which Cariou has utilized throughout his career is highly useful here, allowing him to underplay subtly, while scoring lots of points.
On the other hand, David Storch (former CSC a.d.) is an almost total failure as Frost, playing him in a broad revue-ish style which adds nothing but cheap laughs. Twisting his body into ludicrous postures and producing unrecognizable vowel sounds, Storch seems to have no idea of the charm (granted, egotistical charm) that made Frost a media superstar in his day.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the scene on a plane where Frost first picks up Caroline Cushing (given a total non-performance by Andrea Runge). Storch is so twitchy, effete and over-the-top you wonder why anyone, let alone a sophisticated, attractive globe-trotting woman, would be intrigued.
During the final interview, when Frost supposedly confronts Nixon with new strength and changes the course of the programs, Storch merely plays the interviewer a bit more quietly. Instead of giving Frost power, however, this allows Cariou to break through in his one carefully planned burst of unbridled emotion and walk off with the evening.
By the end of the original Frost/Nixon interviews, most people hailed Frost as the winner. If they’d seen this production, the verdict might have gone the other way.