In the beginning, they both thought it would be Nixon/Frost…
Strange, how a man once so reviled has gained stature in the memory. How we cheered when Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency! How dramatic it was when David Frost cornered him on TV and presided over the humiliating confession that he had stonewalled for three years. And yet how much more intelligent, thoughtful and, well, presidential, he now seems, compared to a number of presidents we’ve had since.
Nixon was thought to have been destroyed by Watergate and interred by the Frost interviews. But the confession wrung out of him by Frost actually acted as a catharsis. He admitted what everyone already knew, and that freed him to get on with things, to end his limbo in San Clemente, California, to give other interviews, to write books, to be consulted as an elder statesman. Indeed, to show his face in public.
Inland Valley Repertory Theater’s ( IVRT) current play, “Frost/Nixon,” now streaming from https://ivrt.booktix.com/ for two days only, ending with tonight’s performance at 7pm, deftly depicts 70’s TV as a dominant medium in politics as well as entertainment. It grabs us from the opening scene where we see Richard Nixon’s resignation and history in the making.
Travis Wilson, in his IVRT debut, is rivetingly effective as Nixon. Mr. Wilson has the body language, tone inflections and even facial expressions of the failed President down cold. Artfully lighted to accentuate the character’s trembling facial features, his shoulders slightly hunched at times, face bunched, he seems to alternately retreat into himself and then suddenly pounce like a cougar. The actor has more than 100 productions to his credit, by the way, and is best known as The Inland Empire’s Edgar Allan Poe. His one-man play based on Poe’s life can be seen on Amazon Prime.
But now, who really is David Frost? When we meet David Frost, he is a self-promoting talk show host with shows in Australia and Britain and offers cash to the disgraced Richard Nixon for a series of interviews. Mr. Frost, a Cambridge University scholar who began his career as a stand-up comedian, also hosted a TV series of The Guinness Book of World Records. He was involved with hosting famous boxing matches, including the Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fight, and produced many of Neil Diamond’s concerts. Over the course of his 74 years, he managed to interview a total of eight British Prime Ministers and seven U.S. Presidents.
Stories of lost crowns lend themselves to drama, and “Frost/Nixon,” the play, nicely packages the historical events of the end of the Nixon Presidency with a bonus glimpse into the backstage world of a TV journalist. Directed by Patrick Brien, the script revisits the televised May 1977 face-off between the toothy British personality and the disgraced former president three years after he left office, trimming their nearly 30-hour armchair-to-armchair spar into a tidy 122-minute narrative of loss and redemption. We see one ambitious man trying to use a failed world leader and another, a frustrated ex-President, striving to be understood and vindicated. They each need the other.
IVRT’s Spencer Weitzel is most effective as he plays Frost as a light-weight celebrity talk show host with low key charm, steely determination and a big-picture viewpoint. Considered a pushover by his peers, he was scorned at the time for even presuming to interview Nixon. He was a man accustomed to being nice to people like Zsa Zsa Gabor. But Frost was much more media savvy than given credit, and knew quite well that politics can also be “show biz.”
Broadcast in four 90-minute programs, the interviews were seen as an enormous risk both for Mr. Frost, who was gambling with a great deal of money and his future, and for the presidentially pardoned Nixon, who was seeking absolution but risking further public humiliation. The dynamics of the interviews included a ‘no-holds barred’ agreement, which was unprecedented at the time. Whatever the outcome, though, Nixon was guaranteed a sweet jackpot: some $600,000 and 10 percent of the profits.
Nixon and his agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar (Tom Provenzano, who also plays Mike Wallace) eventually realized Frost had failed to find financial backing for the project and was paying Nixon out of his own pocket. Frost would be ruined if he didn't get what he clearly needed, but that played into Swifty’s negotiating power, upping the ante. If you factor in Nixon's envy of Frost's popularity and genial personality, Frost in a way represented Nixon's vulnerabilities, his shortcomings and even some of his own desires. In one revealing moment, Nixon confides he would do anything to be able to attend a party like him and just relax and be accepted around people.
Mr. Weitzel’s Frost is surrounded by three key advisers consummately played by Steve Siegel as Bob Zelnick, experienced TV newsman, Max Herzfeld as John Birt, and Preston Helms as researcher James Reston Jr., coaching Frost on strategy. Nixon, in turn, relied on his vast interview experience along with his loyal chief of staff James Brennon, skillfully and emotively played by Aaron Pyle.
A striking Lauren Bell played Frost’s love interest, Caroline Cushing. Ms. Cushing was in later life the west coast editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, but when she met David Frost, she was the Director of the Monaco Government Tourist Office in New York City. For the next five years they traveled the world together as he interviewed heads of state, world leaders and celebrities, and she was present at the Nixon interviews as well.
Anchored by its first-rate leads and a truly outstanding ensemble, the play is really like a talkathon embellished with dramatic back scenes. It opens with a kind of tossed salad montage, with Nixon attempting to answer the rattling first question, “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?” which immediately threw the former president for a loop momentarily, realizing that the professional sycophant he’s up against just might prove tougher than his breezy smile suggests.
But the cunning Nixon, with freshly trimmed eyebrows and a newly laundered hanky to dab his upper lip, deflects Frost and turns the question into a justification of his Presidency, sidetracking and embarking on endless digressions, talking points and windy anecdotes. The first question alone went on for a full 23 minutes, before moving on to the main course.
Spencer Weitzel and Travis Wilson do not attempt to mimic their characters, but to embody them. There's the usual settling-in period, common to all biopics about people we're familiar with, when we're comparing the real with the performance. Then that fades out and we become absorbed into the drama. The play really comes down to these two compelling intense performances, these two men with such deep needs entirely outside the subjects of the interviews. All we know about the real Frost and the real Nixon is beside the point. It all comes down to those two men in that room while the cameras are rolling.
To younger audiences, “Frost/Nixon” may simply play out as a one-upmanship struggle between two men. To those of us who remember that last interview in 1977, however, we witnessed Frost smoothly extracting Nixon’s contrived admission in complete synchronicity, pumping a confession out of the world leader that he abused the power of the Presidency.
“When the President does it, it’s not illegal.” Mr. Wilson’s facial expression, jumpy eyes and restrained vocal tones in these moments were mesmerizing!
Written by Peter Morgan and Directed by Patrick Brien, “Frost/Nixon” is Edited and Designed by Spencer Weitzel. The Associate Editor is Brooklyn Vizcarra, Associate Director is Hope Kaufman. Although restricted by our common enemy virus and shot mostly with template Zoom backgrounds, it is staged to represent two opponents facing each other under a bank of monitors with the president’s face in a defiantly close, yet fragmented mosaic posture. It’s a terrific theatrical contrivance that literalizes the writer's belief that Mr. Frost understood the power of the close-up.
It may have even changed a few minds. By the time Nixon took on Mr. Frost, memories of his flop-sweat encounter with John F. Kennedy had been long supplanted by images of Nixon in China, and speeches on your family RCA television set. Continually concerned about the public’s impression of himself, Nixon’s mantra became, “The response is to the image, not to the man.” And in 1977 Nixon finally dusted off that image with a public confession.
Next up at IVRT: “Daddy Long Legs” streaming Sat, February 20th. To purchase tickets or for complete information on IVRT’s upcoming season, go to ivrt.org. And if you happen to reside in the area of Claremont, why not use the option to include Dinner? If you wish, you may upgrade to the pre-fixed 3-course dinner package from Eddie's Italian Eatery in Claremont for tonight’s show, with an option for local delivery or curbside pickup at Eddie's. Enjoy the show!
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report