Is it worth ponying up at the Ahmanson for the national tour of Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon,” in the wake of 2008’s pic version? You bet — first and foremost for absorption in the themes only rattling around within the movie but brought front and center here. Los Angeles playgoers will further enjoy two superb stage actors with very different takes on the titular celeb interviewer and disgraced chief exec, as well as an exciting introduction to one of Britain’s most ingenious helmers, Michael Grandage.
Onstage and screen alike, there’s scintillating fun to be had as David Frost’s irresistible force meets Richard Nixon’s immovable object in a series of videotaped memoirs. Their scrambles are less akin to high-level discourse than to sumo wrestling: Nixon’s GOP handlers are angling for his accelerated rehabilitation, while Frost’s team of liberal ideologues seek to convict the pardoned pol in the court of public opinion, or at least force an unprecedented confession.
But film’s intimacy and realism sent pic helmer Ron Howard into the psychological realm, subtly anatomizing Nixon’s mood swings and inviting us to care whether Frost would be on the personal hook for $2 million if ad support for the interviews couldn’t be found.
The stage production echoes the President’s snort at the prospect of delving into “Nixon the man”: “Spare me.” Grandage is after more grandeur, eschewing psychological probing to dramatize (not just mention) Morgan’s central thesis about the curious intersection of politics and mass media. The satire is discernible in the very set, as the eye consistently travels up to the images on Christopher Oram’s giant video wall and away from the “miniaturized” actors performing below.
Show’s Frost and Nixon are types, not facsimiles — although Alan Cox absolutely nails the plummy diction, plosive nouns and pretentiousness for which the real-life broadcaster was detested on three continents. This Frost carries show business in his bones, all fist-in-the-air gestures and knees-bent posturing. He’s Anderson Cooper, he’s Prof. Harold Hill, not to be deterred; the only question is how he’ll win out.
Other characters may see Frost as the tortoise in the race with Nixon’s hare, but we never underestimate this smooth dude, so keenly do we feel celebrity’s power and even magic.
At the same time, it matters not a whit that little of the actual waning-years statesman can be discerned in the beefy, basso Stacy Keach. What the thesp provides in spades is what the script needs: the utter self-confidence and white-heat anger of an old-style politico, about to be blindsided by the camera.
Indeed, Keach’s dissimilarity to Nixon allows him to stand in for every preening fat cat who ever thought himself wily enough to outfox the tube’s power. He’s Mayor Daley Sr. or Marion Barry; heck, he’s Rod Blagojevich, and even die-hard Nixon fans can delight in his comeuppance as they mentally substitute their own favorite blowhard.
Other players fall short of the stars’ standard, though Stephen Rowe (one of four vets of the Gotham engagement) is a coolly persuasive Swifty Lazar and a spot-on Mike Wallace; and Brian Sgambati’s Jim Reston avoids smugness to hunt down arch-enemy Nixon with copious charm.
But in showbiz as in politics, the topliners are the thing. Keach and Cox’s playing crackles with energy from the startup negotiations through the early exchanges between interrogator and subject. The fictional late-night phone call between a drunken Nixon and exhausted Frost — played for poignancy in the film as the turning point in the host’s character arc — here resembles a clash of titans staking out their claims before the final showdown.
By the time Frost produces the smoking gun from which Nixon cannot retreat, the audience is bubbling with laughter even before the punchlines arrive. (The show is paced like a whirlwind.) But the mirth stops short for Grandage’s final coup, as he employs a closeup, for the first time all evening, to encapsulate history within a single, shattering image.
This kinetic demonstration of TV’s reductive power captures a thrill the otherwise estimable cinematic “Frost/Nixon,” with its closeups throughout, is denied, and renders this stage revisitation — for media junkies especially — unmissable.