“He is back among us. And, as always, in a memorable manner, both painful and poignant, sometimes illuminating, usually self-serving. … A public that may have grown quite weary of Richard Nixon can hardly deny its fearful fascination with, and continuing curiosity about, the man who became and still remains America’s antihero.” – Time Magazine in its May 9, 1977 issue published as The Nixon Interviews began to air on television
FRANKLIN, Tenn. – For those old enough to remember when President Nixon resigned the moment was one burned into memory like the Kennedy assassination and 9/11. The Watergate break-in, the subsequent cover-up of White House ties to that crime by our 37th President and others and the consequences when that cover-up was exposed still haunt us; there have been other political scandals before and since but Nixon’s stunning self-inflicted fall from a 1972 landslide reelection to his 1974 resignation made our worst fears about corrupt federal power reality.
For three years after his departure from the Oval Office Nixon (who died in 1994) stayed away from the public spotlight. Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, a 2006 play (later adapted into a 2008 movie) starring Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in London and New York that Studio Tenn is now presenting here, explores the drama – and oft-unintended comedy – that unfolded when the disgraced politician and a British TV personality better known for interviewing rock stars and actors prepared for and then taped a record-setting series of interviews (45 million watched the first in-syndication episode, a TV record for the stand-alone interview of a politician at the time).
Having seen both versions of this largely-true story – as the late Sir David Frost, who passed away last Aug. 31, once told CNN, while at least 10 percent (or more according to other sources ) is fiction, “…what they got, they got … absolutely right” – the play is more focused than the movie. In the film the story’s power is somewhat diffused by its expansion into various sets and locations; with the relative claustrophobia of the stage (particularly the oh-so-comfy confines of Franklin Theatre’s playing space) Frost/Nixon has a much stronger grip.
But while the drama is gripping, it’s also very funny; in addition to humor from other characters Morgan’s genius is not only to let us savor self-deprecating remarks that Nixon confidantes confirmed he often deployed behind-the-scenes but to understand that such levity not only humanizes the figure disparagingly known as “Tricky Dick” but also keeps us from being worn down too soon by the show’s more serious moments. That means those moments pack ultimate punch when they come.
Robert Kiefer nimbly walks the line his talents, Morgan (best known for writing the screenplay for the film The Queen) and Studio Tenn Artistic Director Matt Logan have combined to create for Nixon. The actor-director has four-plus decades of pro experience that he draws on to paint a vivid portrait, making the most of historical and fictional elements in the script. We first see the President preparing to deliver his Aug. 8, 1974 address to the nation where he announced he would resign the next day; just as tape of that event shows, shortly before he went on air Nixon was jovially noting his fear about what his personal photographer Ollie Atkins might shoot: “I’m afraid he’ll catch me picking my nose. You wouldn’t print that though, would you Ollie?” Kiefer delivers those startling lines with the same off-the-cuff-gallows-humor air as Nixon actually did.
Contrast that with the moment when Nixon’s mask comes off as Frost digs deeper into the Watergate mire during the climactic taping scene; Kiefer’s Nixon goes from good posture and emotional control to a slumped figure showing flashes of defensiveness and self-pity. It’s simply stunning to watch and hear Kiefer at that and other revealing instances; he understands that capturing Nixon’s essence – a remarkable politician and statesman that brought himself down through the insecure and paranoid failings of his personality – and not doing a mere impersonation is what’s required, and he does so in spellbinding fashion.
No less compelling is Brent Maddox as Frost. That’s not surprising when one considers the work he’s done before (such as a virtuoso performance in the titular role of Blackbird Theater’s 2013 Amadeus revival) but his ability to completely disappear into his role – as Kiefer also does – is ultimately why I leave my comfortable recliner at home for a somewhat-less-comfortable theater seat. Maddox brings an intoxicating blend of energy, enthusiasm and charm to his Frost, but he also gives us ample evidence of Frost’s vulnerability as he risked money and career on a gamble even his closest associates first considered foolhardy.
As is typically the case with Studio Tenn the supporting cast is the best this region has to offer. Ross Bolen narrates as the zealous anti-Nixon partisan Jim Reston, but Bolen never emphasizes that so much that Reston, a thoughtful and thorough author and journalist, becomes a caricature. Corey Caldwell brilliantly transitions between Team Nixon as legendary Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar and Team Frost as TV journalist Bob Zelnick; that one person could play two such utterly different people while providing the voice of 60 Minutes’ tenacious interviewer Mike Wallace to boot is testament to Caldwell’s considerable talents.
Also providing plenty of talent to the proceedings is Evelyn O’Neal Brush as Australian tennis star Evonne Goolagong, a coffee-tea-or-me flight attendant and other parts (including future TV anchor Diane Sawyer). Matthew Rosenbaum fills out multiple roles quite seamlessly as well. Nat McIntyre (fresh off his wonderful work in Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s Othello) submerges himself into the character of BBC producer and Frost friend John Birt so much that just as with his scheming Iago one would figure he was born to be it rather than hired to pretend it.
Mike Baum as Jack Brennan, Nixon’s San Clemente-banished tireless defender and chief of staff, and Emily Tello Speck as Caroline Cushing, later a magazine editor and PR chief who becomes Frost’s girlfriend in the show (though in real life they were already together), round out an A1 cast with fully-fleshed performances. (And it’s only right to note that Speck’s husband Jake, in addition to his duties as Studio Tenn’s managing director, handles a Pan Am pilot’s voiceover quite well too.)
Logan’s well-paced production also benefits from the large vintage TV-like screen installed upstage (Logan and Mitch White are once again co set-designers) that shows Watergate-era footage alongside the onstage action when Frost and Nixon go on-camera. On a set where people in 1970s clothing (credit Logan again, assisted by wardrobe supervisor Terrah Trimble) with Sondra Nottingham’s fine wigs and makeup are deftly lit by Stephen Moss with well-modulated sound by Danny Northup, that screen ultimately gives us the devastating freeze-frame of a man whose political achievements were fatally undermined by his personality.
Studio Tenn presents Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon directed by Matt Logan through March 2 at the Franklin Theatre (419 Main St.) Performances are at 7 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets ($47.50-$67.50) are available by calling (615) 538-2076 or going online to www.franklintheatre.com.
*Photos and video by ANTHONYMATULA courtesy the photographer/designer and Studio Tenn.