Even as most road shows have run scared from the distractions of the elections this fall, "Frost/Nixon" has hit the hinterlands early, hoping to capitalize on the current hunger for all things political.

Even as most road shows have run scared from the distractions of the elections this fall, “Frost/Nixon” has hit the hinterlands early, hoping to capitalize on the current hunger for all things political. This touring version of the Donmar Warehouse and Broadway production of the hit Peter Morgan play, which stars Stacy Keach as Richard Nixon, lacks some of the juicy, in-your-face pizzazz of the Broadway show, especially when stretched to fill large road houses. But thanks to a rich and empathetic central performance from a distinguished tragedian, it actually now reads as a more thoughtful show.

As advance buzz for the upcoming Ron Howard “Frost/Nixon” movie hits, B.O. prospects for the road show look decent — especially as the show reaches major-market auds who are well aware of David Frost’s ushering in of an era where politics and showbiz have become indistinguishable and Sarah Palin’s most memorable performances are on “Saturday Night Live.”

Bathroom yakking in Appleton, Wis., centered on the Republican VP candidate and how Frost would have handled her (with aplomb, no doubt).

Keach’s take on Nixon is fascinating. Frank Langella, who originated the role and takes on Tricky Dick in the upcoming pic, captured the latent dark side of Nixon, switching deftly from shrewdly populist politician to Beelzebub.

Keach goes for a kinder, gentler approach, focusing more on the president’s muted, depressive state at the point of the famous Frost interviews in 1977. And thus the climax of the show is not so much a “gotcha” as a tragic fall.

Keach offers an exceedingly powerful and weirdly moving performance, admirable for its uncompromising sophistication and its willingness to treat this slick-and-snappy drama as a work of great dramatic weight.

Unfortunately, the touring version has only one big video screen, divided by a fake frame intended to evoke the bank of multiple TV screens used in the Broadway version. That gets in the way of the show’s climax. You wish they could somehow fly out of the frame so we could see Keach’s guilt-ridden face in closeup. Unbroken. And broken.

As Nixon’s interlocutor, the British-born actor Alan Cox doesn’t evoke all the excitement and energy of Michael Sheen, but he has the right insouciance. And although Frost’s lust for celebrity doesn’t pop as it perhaps should, I’d argue that Cox brings more vulnerability to the role. When matched with Keach, that makes the show seem less a media riff on recent political history and more human and universal in its revelations. Many in the very solid supporting cast were involved with the show on Broadway.

Morgan strikes me as an ideal playwright for the current road — his kind of writing is accessible, sexy, fresh, clear and assertive enough to make the kind of case that straight plays always have to make when surrounded by seasons of touring tuners. Road auds don’t have the weariness for this kind of punchy, Aaron Sorkin-like style that New York crix and high-brow insiders sometimes display.

This is the kind of show that reluctant subscribers probably won’t have seen before and will likely enjoy more than they expected. And the frenetic political landscape outside the doors of the theater provides the perfect frame.

Frost/Nixon

Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, Appleton, Wis.; 1,964 seats; $52 top

Production

An Arielle Tepper Madover, Independent Presenters Network, Broadway Across America, Mary Lou Roff and 101 Prods. presentation of the Donmar Warehouse production of a play in one act by Peter Morgan. Directed by Michael Grandage.

Creative

Set, costumes, Christopher Oram; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Adam Cork. Opened, reviewed Oct. 7, 2008. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Richard Nixon - Stacy Keach David Frost - Alan Cox
With: Meghan Andrews, Bob Ari, Antony Hagopian, Roxanna Hope, Ted Koch, Stephen Rowe, Brian Sgambati, Noel Velez.
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