Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Beck Center

(Angela Gillespie-Winborn as Ma Rainey, helpfully covering her hideous dress with a feathered fan, and Robert J. Williams as Slow Drag)

Back in the 1920s, black recording artists were often used and abused, paid only piddling session fees for songs that continued to ring up strong sales for years. And the pain engendered by that royalty-free treatment forms the heart and soul of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, now at the Beck Center.

Written by August Wilson, the script is rich in language but poses many challenges to the company of actors, since there is much repetition and many digressions that depart from the toothpick-thin plot. In this production, director Sarah May and her players get many of the characterizations right, but aren’t able to keep the pacing tight and the momentum moving forward. As a result, the already lengthy show seems to play half-again as long.

The premise of the play couldn’t be simpler. The volatile Ma, at the apex of her recording career, is scheduled to record the show’s title song with a four-man band. But she doesn’t arrive for the first hour, as the musicians kill time in the studio razzing each other and sharing stories about their sometimes funny, sometimes horrific past.

Finally, Ma shows up with her retinue which includes her shy and stuttering nephew Sylvester and young assistant Dussie Mae. Immediately, Ma starts throwing orders at the two white men putatively in charge of the session, producer Sturdyvant and her agent Irvin. They reluctantly accede to her demands but the trumpeter, named Levee, clashes with her over Levee’s arrangement of the “Black Bottom.” And that is the breach that ultimately leads to tragedy.

Playwright Wilson writes in jazz riffs, often employing repeated phrasings and improvisations on a theme (ie. “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”). And this requires actors who can ride those subtle tonal shifts without getting lost in the word weeds. The four musicians—Michael May as the mercurial Levee, Larry Arrington-Bey as placid trombonist Cutler, Anthony Elfonzia Nickerson-El as the intellectual, philosophizing pianist Toledo, and Robert J. Williams as cocky upright bass player Slow Drag—successfully shape those distinct characters. And there are moments, especially in their monologues, that crackle with energy.

However, due to some softness on lines and slack timing, there are also substantial stretches when it seems the show is drifting in circles rather than driving towards a conclusion. These are the times when Wilson’s repetitive phrasings seem more like careless typographical errors than an intentional layering of mood, as well as a desperate groping for answers. Without that foundation, the surprising denouement feels tacked on rather than profoundly inevitable.

Angela Gillespie-Winborn handles the attitude-heavy role of Ma Rainey well, although she is saddled with a horrific red gown (it’s a hot tranny mess) that bulges, drapes and stretches in unfortunate directions and at all the wrong places. But when she sings the blues, you feel the emotion and, for a moment, are transported.

Some small details also go by the wayside, as Deja M. Foster’s overly hip-twitchy Dussie Mae never seems like Ma’s lesbian bauble, which makes her flirting with Levee less fraught than it should be. And while Lawrence Seman and Michael Regnier huff and puff appropriately as Sturdyvant and Irvin, they don’t quite bring into sharp relief the omnipresent and often unconscious racism of the time.

It is to be hoped that, by settling into the run, these talented actors will be able to master their lines and timing, allowing the playwright’s jazzy mastery to shine forth.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Through February 22 at the
Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue,
Lakewood, 216-521-2540

Monday, January 26, 2009

I Love You Because, PlayhouseSquare

(Corey Mach as Austin and Jessica Cope as Marcy)

If you think you deserve an emotional bailout in this, the winter of our financial discontent, it awaits you in downtown Cleveland. And the production is all the more amazing, and somehow even more enjoyable, since the show surmounts a blandly sappy title and the most predictable plot line since Lassie Come Home.

Stuck in the nether world between a musical and a musical revue, I Love You Because (hey, I told you it was sappy) now at PlayhouseSquare is a light, funny, romantic and vibrant two hours that will kick-start your endorphins and leave you craving more.

Featuring some witty and lively songs by Joshua Salzman (music) and Ryan Cunningham (book and lyrics), the basic elements are there. But it all comes together thanks to Victoria Bussert’s frenetic, gleeful direction. Indeed, the six-person cast never lets up for a minute and, by the end of the evening, you may need a friend to help massage the goofy grin off your face.

It’s all set in present-day New York City where twenty-ish people are constantly on the prowl for lovers, partners or just a fast good time. One of these, Austin, is an uptight greeting card writer who is always trying to finish the thought, “Life is like a…” (Mistakenly calling these musings metaphors—actually, they’re similes—he never comes up with one to top humorist Lewis Grizzard’s: “Life is like a dog sled team, If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.”

Anyhow, Austin has just had his heart crushed, catching his long-term girlfriend and putative fiancee with another guy. He is consoled by his amiably goofy brother Jeff, a computer game geek with a tendency for malapropisms (“Get your ducks in a line…a ROW.”) Jeff’s prescription for Austin: Become indifferent, and that will lure Catherine back.

Are you laughing yet? Of course not, but that’s just because you haven’t seen how this is played out in the intimate confines of the 14th Street Theatre. Corey Mach, who eerily looks and acts like Michael Cera, is an ideal Austin as his pleasantly bland personality, coat & tie exterior and regimented habits (he takes his own thermos of home-brewed java to the local coffee shop) barely camouflage his more, um, urgent relationship needs.

As T-shirted Jeff, Matt Lillo is a perfect counterpoint to his bro—all unrestrained id and spontaneity. With an appearance similar to a cousin of Kevin Bacon, Lillo generates plenty of giggles by tossing off his laugh lines with a serious mien and understated aplomb.

During an “on-the-rebound” prowl, Austin meets up with Marcy, a free-spirited, progressive yin to his tight-ass Republican yang. And Jeff hooks up with Diana (they meet through J-Date, although neither is Jewish), a woman who matches Jeff’s oddball nature in public and exceeds his wildest dreams in private.

In a cast with consistently professional voices, Jessica Cope as Marcy has the best pipes and puts them to good use in the brightest song of the evening, “Even Though.” In this second act gem, she relates her reluctant attraction to Austin: “Even though you’re just a little bit pretentious/Even though you’re more traditional than my dad.”

As Diana, the astonishingly slim and flexible Jodi Dominick is a hoot, from her high-speed, convoluted musical description of a mathematical formula for dating to a futon-based seduction of Jeff that would win most Olympic gymnastic competitions.

These four winning performances are supported ably by Kyle Primous and Ursula Cataan, who play various NYC denizens, such as bartenders and such. Although he has precious few lines, Primous makes the most of them in a stylized performance that stops just short of belonging in a different show altogether.

Inevitably, there are some clunkers, as the first act ends with two clumsily dreary solos by Austin and Marcy that deflate the buoyant energy that had been building. And the title song show-closer is also a bit of a letdown. But other than those hollow moments, I Love You Because has lots to love, including a handsome glass block set by Russ Borski and strong band accompaniment directed by Matthew Webb.

May it run until we are all employed and back on our feet again (yes, that long).

I Love You Because
Through May 17, produced by PlayhouseSquare at
the 14th Street Theatre, 2037 E. 14th Street,

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A House With No Walls, Karamu

(Taresa Willingham as Oney Judge and James S. Hakim as her brother, Austin.)

Speaking as a former English teacher in the Cleveland School System, the day cannot come soon enough when African-American kids will stop dissing good students of the same race by claiming they are “acting white.” This self-defeating perversion of racial stereotypes, implying that only Caucasian students would deign to study hard and achieve high grades, is sadly still out there and as pernicious as ever.

Perhaps the mere presence of President Obama will help put that particular demon to rest. But there are many other political-philosophical conflicts within the black community, framed as conservative vs. liberal arguments, that are aired in A House with No Walls, now at Karamu. Jumping back and forth in time from the 1790s to the present day, and based in part on factual events, this play by Thomas Gibbons is ripe with intellectual fodder and is aided enormously by several involving performances.

In present time, the Afro-centric activist Salif Camara is trying to lay claim to an eight-foot-square patch of land in Philadelphia where he and his historian friend Allen Rosen have decided one of George Washington’s slave houses stood, home to nine shackled slaves. (This was only a fraction of Washington’s slave holdings. By the time of his death, there were more than 315 slaves held at his primary homestead, Mount Vernon, Virginia.)

Salif’s desire to put a Slave Museum on that site is being challenged by those who are constructing a new American Museum of Liberty at the same place. This project is being led by a Republican congressman and an African-American historian, Cadence Lane, who is an emerging black conservative voice in the media with the publication of her new book, “The Race Circus.”

As Salif and Cadence engage in their intellectual debates about black issues, the play smoothly slides back in time as we see sister and brother slaves, Oney Judge and Austin Judge, and sample their lives under Washington’s control. Initially, Oney defends Washington as a fair and gentle master, but a local abolitionist opens her eyes to reality and soon she decides to escape to freedom.

Gibbons writes crisp and powerful dialogue that believably sketches the opposing viewpoints of blacks today. Where Cadence sees only a desire for victimhood and a lack of competitiveness in Salif’s obsession with dissecting past wrongs, Salif sees a pressing need to get history right and honor those who suffered under the yoke of slavery. To some degree, both are correct, and that makes for some steamy confrontations.

Fortunately, these scenes are in good hands, with Peter Lawson Jones conveying strength and purpose, along with a sly sense of humor, as Salif. Katrice Monee Head is equally forceful as Cadence, making her “conservative” points with no less passion.

In the slave quarters, Taresa Willingham as Oney registers the helplessness of her status in life. When she tells her brother that Mrs. Washington has decided to give her to Mrs. Washington’s daughter for her wedding dowry, the bone-deep humiliation is palpable. Although he comes terrifyingly close to over-acting, James S. Hakim gives Austin a quirkily energetic yet vulnerable quality that is quite amusing, even endearing, and serves the character well.

Tony Zanoni has some nice moments as Allen, especially when it is revealed that he and Cadence were an item at one time and he is caught between his attraction to her and his friendship with Salif. Clyde Simon, cast in three roles, makes an amusingly frowsy Geo. Washington reenactor, although he is a bit unsteady with his lines throughout.

Director Terrence Spivey keeps the pacing tight, which is a relief since playwright Gibbons tends to be a bit redundant at times. But there is a lot of red meat to chew on in this play, As Oney notes, their slave house seems strong, but it can’t keep their master or mistress from coming in at any time and doing anything to their human property that they want. Thus, the title of the show.

And it indicates that, even with the first African-American now cruising around in Air Force One, there is still a lot of baggage to be unloaded from our country’s history of slavery.

A House With No Walls
Through February 15 at Karamu,
2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7077

Friday, January 23, 2009

Blasted, Bang and Clatter/Cleveland

(This is the last pleasant image you will find in this review. Enjoy it. And revisit it, if you need to take a break from what follows.)

Blasted is vile, scabrous, disgusting, intermittently tedious, cringe-inducing, and as difficult to watch as someone slowly peeling the skin off a live, defenseless animal.

Okay, now that you and I are the only ones left reading this review, let’s talk a bit more in depth about Blasted by Sarah Kane, now at the Bang and Clatter Theatre in Cleveland.

To begin with, every statement in the first paragraph is true. Second, the play is, on the surface, a monumental work of nihilistic self indulgence by a playwright with serious mental problems (she committed suicide in 1999). Third, there is an undeniable pulse of sweetly warped human need that keeps Blasted from being a mere exercise in depravity.

A sensationalistic journalist named Ian has taken a young woman (we never know how young) named Cate to a semi-classy hotel room in England for a tryst or two. But it is soon apparent that Cate is none too bright and has little interest in screwing Ian. And to further complicate matters, she faints dead away at certain times, only to awake pointing and laughing at something only she perceives.

In between his clumsily aggressive forays to seduce Cate, Ian is a one-man OCD festival: fondling his shoulder-holstered pistol, gulping booze, smoking cigarettes, taking showers and trying to cough up a lung—a condition evidently connected to a terminal illness that is stalking him. To top it off, Ian is an unrepentant racist, spitting venom about anyone with a different shade of skin.

The power games ebb and flow between these two, and it is never made clear who is in charge. But we are well aware that fierce storms are raging outside in the streets, as Ian points his gun at the hotel room door every time a hotel staffer knocks to drop off another bottle of gin or a food tray.

But after a (comparatively) tame first half, things change abruptly when one of the knocks on the door turns into a soldier who has wandered up from the streets. Grimy and starving, the unnamed guerrilla keeps his rifle trained on Ian and begins the play’s descent into a hellish conflagration of rape, eyeball gobbling and suicide. Director Sean McConaha clearly is plugged into Kane’s caustic worldview, and he never lets the audience slide off the barbed hook she has devised.

While it is a bit too glib to defend a play saturated with violence as a commentary on how desensitized we all are to violence—that is a circular argument that can spin on forever—there is a core of feeling that Kane taps into in Blasted. For all his awful aspects, Ian is trying to connect with Cate on some level, and vice versa. Even the soldier exhibits a desire to touch another human being, except all his wiring has been ripped out and he can only express such thoughts in the most repellent ways imaginable.

If you can bear up under this two-hour intermission-less assault, you will be treated to three fine performances. As Ian, Nick Koesters is brilliantly numb yet grasping for some shred of humanity. The dark humor that exists in the play comes mostly from his well-tuned performance (when Cate suggests he quit smoking, his off-handed “Yeah, right” is not only funny, it speaks volumes).

Faye Hargate is also excellent as Cate, exploring the young woman’s fear, fleeting moments of happiness and ultimate wounded determination to go on. Allen Branstein makes the soldier a horrific presence and nicely blends this beast’s flickering echoes of contorted decency.

Make no mistake, this play is about as enjoyable as a dead baby (yes, there’s one of those, too). But it is meant to be an invasion of our senses, a dismantling of our comfort zone. This production does that with brutal precision, and so it is a theatrical experience worth considering.

(Note: There is no curtain call at the end, probably because the actors are immediately whisked away to intensive psycho-therapy sessions so they can return the next night.)

Through February 14 at the
Bang and Clatter Theatre,
224 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland,

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Good Doctor, Ensemble Theatre

(Bernard and Dorothy Canepari in one of The Good Doctor stories, "The Defenseless Creature.")

There are three shows, produced by three different theater companies, now running simultaneously at the home of the Cleveland Play House. And the score now stands: Froth – 2, Serious Drama – 1.

The Play House production of Around the World in 80 Days is a non-stop gaggle of funny voices and shameless schtick Scotch-taped to a story by Jules Verne. And Blackbird by Dobama Theatre is a scorching view of child abuse viewed at chronological but not emotional distance.

Tipping the scale in favor of mid-winter frivolity, at least under the CPH roof, is The Good Doctor produced by Ensemble Theatre. This is a series of short vignettes—originally, short stories written by Anton Chekhov when he was a young medical student, then subsequently tweaked by comedy genius Neil Simon. The result is a sweet meringue pie with precious little filling and no crust. Indeed, many of the vignettes play like quickie sketches on Saturday Night Live (without any of the nasty bits).

But thanks to the perfect-pitch direction of Jacqi Loewy and a couple strong performances, many of these miniature tales generate warm chuckles if not thigh-slapping guffaws. The evening is narrated by Anton Chekhov himself (an ingratiating John Busser), who self-deprecatingly muses about his destiny and process as a writer.

The cast is led by Bernard Canepari who is in physical pain during two of the most successful stories, once as a man with a toothache at the mercy of a novice dentist and later as a bank manager with gout. In the former instance, titled “Surgery,” Canepari contorts his expressive face as the doltish dentist (Busser) yanks him by the tooth, nearly pulling him across the stage. Sure, it’s an old bit, but it was a lot younger when Anton originally penned it. And what the hell, it still works.

In the latter sketch, “A Defenseless Creature,” Canepari is beset not only by a throbbing foot but by an elderly woman (a wonderfully irritating Dorothy Canepari) who, between screeches of misery and a harping, pecking persistence, drive the banker to give her whatever money she wants, just to be rid of her.

The other efforts in this collection have small flaws that dim but don’t entirely extinguish the pleasures to be had. In “The Sneeze,” a paranoid young clerk turns himself inside out after sneezing on the head of his superior at a theater. But John Gellott’s amateurish line readings as the young man interrupt the comic flow. In “The Governess,” a miserly mistress duns her hired help for everything from a broken saucer to a runny nose, reducing the employee’s compensation almost to nothing. That part is lovely, but the ensuing reversal doesn’t work, humorously or otherwise.

In “The Audition,” Eileen Canepari as a desperate actress seeking an audition is excellent, but the bit falls flat when there is no comedic payoff to her ultimately well-rehearsed reading. Another story ripe with potential is “The Arrangement” featuring a nervous 19-year-old Chekhov (here, Gellott’s stiffness works for him) and his father (Busser) who wants to help him grow up with the help of a hooker (E. Canepari). But the story ends with father and son walking away before the erotic event, a perhaps realistic but unfulfilling conclusion.

Played on a bare stage in period clothing, this is a spare yet cozy and endearing production. And it serves as a fitting tribute to the person who chose the play, Ensemble co-founder and artistic director Lucia Colombi, who passed away ten days before opening night.

The Good Doctor
Through February 1, produced by
Ensemble Theatre at the Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-321-2930

Blackbird, Dobama

(Alyssa Weldon and Joel Hammer)

Lots of different kinds of relationships go bad, but none are more vexing than romantic entanglements, since they involve not just the mind and emotions, but the heart and libido as well. And those complications are multiplied enormously when the female is 12 years of age and the male is 40.

Of course, it is wildly incorrect to call something romance when it is obviously child abuse. But it is not wrong to consider the profound, colliding emotions that such a relationship can produce. And that is what happens, with often chilling immediacy, in Blackbird now at Dobama. This play by David Harrower, which won “best new play” awards in Scotland and England, dares to explore this controversial subject and leave the audience with no simple resolutions.

Peter, a 50-something middle manager at a non-descript company, occupying an anonymous one-story building, is visited by Una, a young woman in her late twenties. She calls him Ray and clearly has serious issues on her mind, which he tries to deflect to no avail.

Soon, we learn that Ray was Peter’s real, former name, and that he had had a months-long sexual relationship with Una 15 years before, when she was a pre-teen. At the time, Ray lived a few doors away and met Una at her own home, after being invited to a barbecue by her father.

Una now confronts Ray in the litter-strewn break room of Ray’s company: she, swerving from coyness to sarcasm to rage and he, lashing out defensively and then retreating. Una claws at Ray, trying to make him feel the hurt she felt back then, particularly on the night when he seemed to abandon her and the secret affair was revealed and prosecuted.

In a well-crafted 80 minutes, the play soon takes on the aspects of ritual dance, as we recognize that each of these people is frozen in time, to some degree. After Ray served a few years in prison, he changed his name and took the job he has now; she suffered years of ostracism in her community and then stumbled on his picture in a magazine by accident.

The performances under the sensitive direction of Scott Plate are remarkably intelligent and believable, but fall short of spectacular. As Ray, the excellent Joel Hammer gives full vent to his aggressive, controlling side as he repeatedly attempts to force Una into submission or silence. But he doesn’t fully reveal Ray’s softer or more accessible side, the one that would have given 12-year-old Una the comfort zone she would have needed to continue the relationship.

As Una, slim Alyssa Weldon is ideal physically for this devilishly complex part, since you can easily picture her as a young girl with stars in her eyes as an older man pays attention to her. But she seems to skate through early moments without a clear focus on her character’s needs. However, she hits her stride during a monologue that describes the fateful night when everything fell apart, and it is truly disturbing.

In a play this delicate, even small discrepancies become noticeable. One of those is the set, which is so overly littered with trash from the start, on a long table and all across the floor, it looks more like the day after Woodstock than a room in any functioning company. As a result, when Ray explodes later and dumps trash cans out, the room doesn’t look much different and any metaphorical message is thereby muted.

This lacerating play concludes in a way that leaves it most uncertain whether Ray has changed his ways or not, or that Una will be able to function normally in the future. That gives the audience something to chew on for the remainder of the evening. And maybe for a few days after that.

Through February 9, produced by
Dobama Theatre, at the Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-932-3396

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Around the World in 80 Days, Cleveland Play House

(From left, Anna Khaja as Aouda, Keythe Farley as Phileas Fogg, and Michael Weber as Detective Fix are fightin' Injuns.)

These bitterly cold January days seem to call out for comfort, in the form of comfort food (a sinfully rich mac & cheese, please), comfort cocktails (hot buttered rum made with Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream, if you don’t mind), and comfort entertainment.

A prime candidate for the last category is Around the World in 80 Days, now at the Cleveland Play House, a play that requires no heavy lifting by the audience and which enfolds you in volley after volley of easy jokes, slapstick and fractured accents both foreign and domestic. In short, it’s a hybrid blending of Benny Hill, Monty Python, Pee-Wee Herman, Inspector Clouseau, and brief touches of Scooby-Doo. If that sounds like heaven to you, then come right along.

This frenetic version of the Jules Verne classic, written by Mark Brown, is essentially a vehicle for five actors. Four play multiple roles, and two of those players essay more than a dozen characters each.

After the rich and punctilious London adventurer Phileas Fogg makes a wager than he can circle the 19th century globe in 80 days, he and his manservant Passepartout set off on steamers, trains, elephants and other conveyances, meeting a determinedly eccentric assortment of oddballs along the way.

Under the inventive and comically relentless direction of Bart DeLorenzo, Days lurches from one ethnic or national stereotype to the next, but it’s all so giddily juvenile that it would be silly for anyone to take offense.

The pretense of suspense is provided by Detective Fix, who is pursuing Fogg to the ends of the Earth to determine if the gentleman is actually a bank robber. And along the way, Fogg picks up a young Indian princess, Aouda, who was destined to be sacrificed.

The acting is generally robust throughout, with Keythe Farley providing a stiff and glowering center as Fogg, something that is desperately needed in this kind of high-energy production. As Passepartout, Brian Sills milks his cheesy French accent in ways both amusing and cringingly predicable (referring to an encounter with Comanches, he notes, “We smoka the piss pipe.”).

Michael Weber makes the most of a bad wig as the constantly frustrated Fix, and handles other roles with dexterity. And Joe Foust dips into his funny-voice bag repeatedly to come up with a number of clever characters from the foppish Gauthier Ralph to various ship captains, engineers and clerks. His hilarious phlegm-challenged judge is a particular treasure. In this cacophony of high-testosterone high jinks, an impassive and not very sultry Anna Khaja as Aouda almost disappears, which undercuts the romantic conclusion.

Although there is a lot of funny stuff, the effect tends to wear thin due to repetition and overload: there are no real breathers in Brown’s script, and no tendency to ease back on the wacky pedal by director DeLorenzo. Still, some moments gleam brightly, such as a sequence on a train that is speeding to jump a river, with all the action conveyed by the jiggling and “floating” actors.

For those who remember the Mike Todd film version, don’t expect scenic magic, since everything is played out within the confines of a book-lined library where the action starts. Different locations are indicated minimally—a string of paper lanterns for China. And there are some curious production decisions, such as not having any sound effects when the heavily armed travelers are fighting the Indians out west.

But, hey, there are genuine laughs to be had here. And that’s not so bad when our fingers and toes never warm up and our poor, recession-abused finances have almost been battered into submission. Hey, is that mac & cheese ready yet?

Around the World in 80 Days
through February 1 at the
Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Frost/Nixon, PlayhouseSquare

(Stacy Keach as Nixon, seated.)

Nixon: “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

Frost: “By definition?”

Nixon: “Exactly.”

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,