Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Frost/Nixon (The SOB Review)

Frost/Nixon (The SOB Review) – Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York, NY

*** (out of ****)

Call it a case of overblown expectations.

No, I’m not referring to former disgraced U.S. President Richard Nixon this time -- I’m talking about my disappointment over Frost/Nixon, now playing Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

No, I am not a kook.

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).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Nixon: Knowing What I Know And When I Knew it (April 26, 2007)
Critics Acquit Frost/Nixon (April 23, 2007)
Frost/Nixon Ready For Broadway Close-Up Tonight (April 22, 2007)
Box Office: Theatregoers Don't Passover Broadway (April 9, 2007)
West End Transfer Of Frost/Nixon Opens This Evening (November 15, 2006)
Which British Hits Will Be Broadway-Bound? (September 20, 2006)
Critics Find Frost/Nixon to Be Unimpeachable (August 23, 2006)
London's Frost/Nixon Opens Tonight (August 23, 2006)
Sheen/Langella to Portray Frost/Nixon in London (June 2, 2006)

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At 10 May, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, Steve, a new play on Broadway that we've both seen about a topic - politics and the media - where we both have some expertise. The theatrical planets may never again line up so perfectly!

Like you, I'm interested in history and politics, plus Peter Morgan's The Queen was my favorite movie of 2006. Apart from A Moon for the Misbegotten, it was the play I was most looking forward to seeing on Broadway.

I was slightly underwhelmed. I think I liked The Queen better as far as Morgan's work goes. I just thought that the portraits of the queen and Tony Blair were a little more fleshed out than the portraits of Frost and Nixon. I didn't need quite so much from the "handlers" on both sides. But I have to say, in the month since I've seen it, I've thought a lot about the issues raised by Frost/Nixon.

I think one of the points that Morgan is trying to make is that these interviews were groundbreaking. And he may be right. They were among the first, if not the first, of the "confessional" television interview. Nowadays, public figures routinely go on television to confess their sins, ask for forgiveness or repair their reputations, often in connection with a book or movie they're promoting.

Also, I was really interested in what the play had to say about the relationship between journalists and politicians, how each side uses the other to get what it wants. In this case, both Frost and Nixon were trying to repair their battered reputations, to make a comeback, and they also wanted a big payday. But they were also adversaries. Frost wanted something from Nixon and Nixon wanted to avoid giving it to him. Frost had his set of questions and Nixon had his set of answers!

Your description of Frost cowering like a punch drunk fighter is really spot on. It did seem a lot like a boxing match. The interviews are kind of analagous to rounds. Both sides have their handlers, giving them advice. Frost is trying for a knockout, to pin Nixon down, and Nixon does his fancy footwork in the ring, talking about anything but Watergate, trying to avoid being hit, trying to wear down Frost, to survive until the round ends. You're right, the finest moments are the interviews themselves. (In fact, when I first read about the play, I thought it was a two-person show). I loved how Michael Sheen's body language evolved during the interviews.

Frank Langella's Nixon has been widely praised, and I enjoyed seeing the things that we associate with Nixon, the outstretched arms in the V for victory sign, continually worrying about perspiring during the interviews. I just felt that the things I learned about Nixon were things I mostly knew already.

But perhaps because my background is in the media, and I didn't know as much about him, I was actually more fascinated by Michael Sheen's Frost. David Frost is such an interesting character in this play - a womanizer and gadfly like you said, someone who craves the limelight. I could sense his desperation as he tried to put together the deal for these interviews, planned his strategy, then watched as the whole thing almost collapsed because he couldn't get the one thing he needed - the money quote - an apology from Nixon.

As far as the late-night phone call goes, I understand your point of view, but I think I'm slightly less bothered by it. I've seen many, many movies that deal with historical events, and I realize that there are things in them that are rearranged, exaggerated or simply made up to increase the dramatic tension. I guess I just expect it. So I wasn't as taken aback by the fictionalized conversation. I always try to go back and read up on the actual event, to see where the film portrayal diverges from the historical record.

I guess the highest praise I can give Frost/Nixon is to say that it's the kind of play that I really wish I'd seen with someone, so we could have gone someplace afterward, and just talked about it for hours.

At 10 May, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, I appreciate your own in-depth analysis of this show. You really should be blogging, you know that?! You have so many vital things to say.

You're absolutely correct about this heralding an age of confessional television interviews. I also agree that Morgan's screenplay for "The Queen" was better written, although even that took me aback by its almost forced narrative of events by its key players.

Although it's fairly common knowledge that liquor was flowing in the White House toward the end of Nixon's tenure, I have never before heard of the former president imbibing much after he left office. And while the scene in question provides enormous dramatic tension, it came across to me as forced.

Could that last interview scene of the play succeed without it? Maybe. Maybe not. But I would hate for anyone to see the play and take it at face value.

Still, it should be noted above all that I thought it was a good play.... just not great or excellent.


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