(Stacy Keach as Nixon, seated.)
Nixon: “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”
Frost: “By definition?”
That interchange between former president Richard Nixon and interviewer David Frost, in 1977, not only sought to absolve Dick’s Watergate fiasco. It also formed the foundation of George Bush’s entire outlaw administration, with the astounding, anti-Constitutional claim even being repeated, almost word-for-word, by the phantom vice-president Dick Cheney.
There’s plenty of that kind of dickishness to go around in Frost/Nixon, now on the Palace Theatre stage at PlayhouseSquare. Written by Peter Morgan, the almost two-hour evening (with no intermission) explores the negotiations leading up to a series of TV conversations between the president who resigned in ignominy three years earlier, and a Brit TV star better known for hosting a satirical comedy show (That Was The Week That Was), known for it's often brutally unsubtle comic creations.
Essentially, it is a clash between two monumentally flawed men. One, Frost, camouflaged his insecurities behind a tongue-in-cheek attitude and a steady stream of parties and affairs. The other, an ever more isolated Nixon, fed his insecurities the raw meat of hatred through his enemies lists, his vulgar references to those he despised, and his brazen felonies committed while president.
That’s a rich mix for any production, and while the play fumfers around a bit too much with the preliminaries, the last half hour is quite riveting. However, though the performances are quite good, there are subtle facets of each man’s personality that aren’t fully explored.
As Nixon, Stacy Keach captures the hulking posture and ungainly personal manner that made Tricky Dick so ripe for impersonation. Keach never lapses into caricature or impersonation, finding ways to make this most loathsome of leaders (until George Bush) almost sympathetic in some ways.
But Keach doesn’t quite snare the bottomless self-pity and envy that defined Nixon from his earliest days as a politician. Even though this side is revealed rather obviously in a (fictional) drunken phone call to Frost before the final, revealing interview, it’s not a continuing element of Keach’s characterization. As a result, his Nixon often seems merely awkward and oddly endearing, not a haunted man who regularly lashed out to settle scores.
Similarly, Alan Cox gets most of David Frost right, especially the celebrity’s easy, flowing verbal style. But there was always a desperation behind Frost’s eyes that doesn’t come across in this rendition. Frost’s desire to be taken seriously should be allowed to tangle with Nixon’s gaping neediness. But this production only dances around those edges.
Still, this touring production is involving on many fronts. The staging by director Michael Grandage helps enormously, as a large overhead screen at the back of the stage establishes locations around the world and, ultimately, allows us to focus on close-ups of the two men. This is particularly telling at the end, as we gaze into Keach-Nixon’s face, collapsing slowly under his quasi-admissions of guilt.
In supporting roles, Brian Sgambati is a crisp narrator and impassioned, though a bit simplistic, as Jim Reston, a Nixon-hating journalist who served as advisor to Frost. And Ted Koch is properly bull-headed as Nixon’s aide Jack Brennan.
The current film of Frost/Nixon, starring Frank Langella who originated the Nixon role on Broadway, may have some of the character nuances in place. But there is an undeniable energy to this version that can only be experienced at a live stage production.
And let's hope that no future administrations see fit to quote Nixon on the issue of presidential power and legality.
Through January 25 at the Palace Theatre,
PlayhouseSquare, 1518 Euclid Avenue,