*** (out of ****)
Call it a case of overblown expectations.
After tracking the trajectory of Peter Morgan’s play, from the time London’s Donmar Warehouse announced the impending world premiere through its opening night on Broadway, I’d placed this show at the top of my list of dramas to see.
As previously noted, I’m a student of history and politics and vividly recall the actual landmark interviews of Nixon by British talk show host/gadfly/womanizer David Frost, as well as the traumatizing, cataclysmic historic events that led Nixon to his place as the only president to resign his office.
While Morgan succeeds in going beyond the one-dimensional characterizations of the duo that are all too easy -- and, in fact, demonstrates a surprising degree of empathy for the former leader of the free world (so much so that I wondered whether his reading signaled a desire to declare Nixon’s much-desired rehabilitation complete) -- his fictionalization of conversations that never took place took me aback. Most egregious was Nixon’s drunken phone call to Frost late in the play.
Captivating? Yes. Memorable? You bet. Fascinating theatre? Without a doubt. But, such flagrant abuse of the facts borders on an abrogation of artistic license.
The play may run an intermission-less two hours, but Michael Grandage’s direction moves the production along quickly after a slow start.
Frost/Nixon’s finest moments are derived directly from the interviews themselves, and that’s when the production shifts into high gear. It’s during these passages that Frank Langella (Nixon) and Michael Sheen (Frost) really shine. Just as Langella is breathtaking as his Nixon steamrollers over Frost in the early interview stages, you can’t help but be awed by how Sheen’s Frost cowers like a punch drunk fighter not knowing what hit him.
Notwithstanding the flaws in Morgan’s overall script, the two actors deliver two of the most riveting performances of the year. Their body language alone exhibits more potent artistry than the vast majority of performances I’ve recently seen. While it took some time for me to get beyond Langella sounding more like Walter Cronkite than Nixon (and Sheen initially comes across more like a shrill Austin Powers), each acquits himself well beyond a reasonable doubt.
In the end, however, almost in spite of Nixon’s apology during the last interview for his wrongdoing, it’s the magnificent Langella who triumphs with the 2006-07 Theatrical Season’s most impassioned, nuanced performance. That makes Frost/Nixon a must-see event.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).