REVIEW: “Frost/Nixon” — Inland Valley Repertory Theater (IVRT)

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

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.