Review: Stacy Keach in Frost/Nixon at TBPAC

The big, hulking Keach might be closer in body type to LBJ than RMN, but he captures Nixon’s essence: the pugnacity, the pious streak, the self-pity, the orotund vocal style. A late-night drunken phone call from Nixon to Frost is an invention of the playwright’s, but it makes a plausible case that Nixon saw in his young interrogator a kindred spirit: someone, like him, who was looked down upon by the establishment but nevertheless rose to power. The opening-night audience at TBPAC broke into applause after the call; it was hard to tell whether they were applauding Keach’s tour de force or Nixon’s defiant bravado (a little of both, I suspect).

As Frost, Alan Cox is a worthy adversary. At first, the characterization seems to bear out the suspicion of “serious” journalists that Frost wasn’t up to the task of a major political interview: Cox plays him as a dapper boulevardier, sprightly, even bouncy. There’s real suspense as you wait for this lightweight to make a dent in the veteran politician’s armor; when Nixon launches into a filibuster rather than answer a question directly, Cox sinks into his armchair as if in retreat. But toward the end of the interview, when Frost knows he’s got Nixon where he wants him, Cox perches on the edge of his seat, ready to go in for the kill.

The other actors in the ensemble do a good job of establishing the emotional stakes that attended this historic interview: Ted Koch as Jack Brennan, the ramrod-straight retired Marine who was Nixon’s post-resignation chief of staff; Bob Ari as Bob Zelnick, the frustrated researcher who fears Frost is going to go down in flames. And director Grandage does a lot with a little. During the interview, the adversaries’ two camps are grouped at opposite sides of the stage. There’s a crucial moment when Nixon is confronted with a particularly tough question, and Brennan makes the smallest of forward movements, as if he’s instinctively moving in to defend his boss. It’s a tiny detail, but it speaks volumes.

Only Brian Sgambati as James Reston, Jr. feels off. Reston was the historian who helped prep Frost for his interview with Nixon, and who later wrote the book The Conviction of Richard Nixon that inspired Morgan’s play. So it’s a tough role; Reston is not only the hothead crusader determined to crucify Nixon, he is also the play’s narrator, charged with delivering large chunks of exposition. Sgambati, who declaims with the bright, overly loud emphasis of a motivational speaker, succeeds in making an already annoyingly self-righteous character even more so.

But it’s the actors playing Frost and Nixon that make or break this play, and in Keach and Cox the national touring production is doubly fortunate. The final tableaux underscore Morgan’s point about the dance of showbiz and politics: Frost the center of attention at a glamorous party; Nixon in closeup on the screen, his face huge and defeated. The images, like the performances, are indelible.

The first thing the audience sees in the stage production of Frost/Nixon is a gigantic screen, crackling with static. Peter Morgan’s play (the basis for the Oscar-nominated film) is nominally about the famous 1977 TV interviews between British talk-show personality David Frost and former president Richard Nixon, and the negotiations that led up to them. But it’s also about the seductiveness of power, and how television can both grant and undermine that power. So it’s nice to report that while the screen dominates the set of Frost/Nixon, it doesn’t steal our attention. During the interview segments the actors are shown simultaneously in closeup, Jumbotron-style. But even though those huge faces are compelling, the stage is where the action is, thanks to the precise direction of Michael Grandage and the enthralling interplay between Stacy Keach and Alan Cox as Nixon and Frost.

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