Review: Frost/Nixon

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I must admit to having been a little apprehensive about Frost/Nixon, the opening piece for the 2008/2009 season of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company. Knowing only that it revolved around the rather infamous 1977 interviews between former President Richard M Nixon (Len Cariou) and flamboyant British talk show host David Frost (David Storch), I couldn’t help but wonder what could possibly make this better than watching the actual interviews (or rather the single interview)?

But after discovering that the play was written by Peter Morgan who wrote the scripts for both The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, two factional biopics that were both mesmerizing to watch, I quickly realized that we were destined for more than just a staging of the actual interviews but a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the interviews and the characters themselves.

And we aren’t disappointed. In true Morgan style we are treated to an exploration of both the Nixon and Frost personas and the circumstances that led to one of the biggest confessions from a President of the United States.

Len Cariou as Richard M Nixon and Peter Storch as David Frost in Peter Morgan's  Frost/Nixon currently playing at the Vancouver Playhouse
Len Cariou as Richard M Nixon and Peter Storch as David Frost in Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon currently playing at the Vancouver Playhouse

To help to drive the story towards its well-known conclusion, Morgan uses narration from James Reston Jr (Ari Cohen) on the Frost Side and Colonel Jack Brennan (Tom McBeath) on the Nixon side, but it is the interactions between Frost and Nixon and Morgan’s loose interpretation of what did happen, and even what may have happened, leading up to and during the interviews that ultimately makes this a compelling piece of theatre.

In one particularly powerful scene, Morgan conjures a late night telephone conversation between Frost and Nixon right before the final interview that highlights the boxing metaphors in this show perfectly. Nixon went in with a jab but ultimately Frost wins that particular round when he brings up the call the next day with Nixon. This contrasts nicely to Nixon’s off-putting remark just before the start of another taping session that throws Frost off his game. Morgan does this many times throughout this one act show and while we know that there is an ultimate knock-out in the end, we are still interested in witnessing the various rounds and points scored by both corners.

Frost/Nixon not only explores the lead-up to Nixon’s ultimate confession but also looks at the nature of celebrity and news as entertainment. Frost reportedly paid over half a million dollars and a cut of revenues to Nixon for the interviews and at the time was one of the first widely publicized and criticized interviews-for-cash deals. Morgan helps to drive this point even further with 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace (David Bloom) interviewing Frost about the interviews and the money being paid to Nixon. Of course the real irony here is that CBS purportedly lost out in a bidding war to Frost for the Nixon interviews.

Both David Storch and Len Cariou do great jobs with their portrayals of Frost and Nixon and given the sheer volume of text for these two actors it is not surprising that Cariou forgot some of his dialogue in a couple scenes on opening night.

But this show for me was not really about the actors anyway, but about the Morgan’s abilities as a playwright to take a slice of American history, make it eminently compelling and watchable for those of us not up on the category of “Disgraced US Presidents For a Thousand”.

My only question about Morgan’s take on history was the lopsidedness of the two camps. While the majority of the Frost camp takes an active role in the story, the Nixon camp is relegated to his long-time aide Brennan, an all but silent manservant (Shaker Paleja) and Secret Service agent (Alec Willows). This may have been deliberate on Morgan’s part given the ego of Nixon but it did leave one with a definite feeling of bias towards Frost.

But the biggest plus here is that while the two actors are expected to capture the essence of Frost and Nixon, the only actual attempt at impersonating either character is not by the two leads. This is what made playwright Morgan’s The Queen and The Last King of Scotland so successful and is no different in Frost/Nixon. Director Ted Dykstra has obviously helped here to ensure these two characters don’t become caricatures.

Patrick Clark’s set manages to capture both the “hip” world of Frost and the more traditional world of Nixon, Alan Brodie’s lighting design helps shift us effectively from scene to scene and Creighton Doane’s sound design and music helps set us firmly in the late seventies.

Frost/Nixon is an enjoyable (re)imagining of a difficult time in US history that not only manages to entertain but also educate (despite Morgan’s penchant for what might have been). And with the current elections going on both at home and across the border plus the December release of Ron Howard’s film, it is also very timely.

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