Arts & Culture » Theater

You Don't Know Dick: The Rep's Frost/Nixon gets it half right


"I have a passion for the truth," said nineteenth-century French diarist Jules Renard, "and for the fictions that it authorizes." Apart from the fact that in 1977, three years after having prematurely left the White House in the wake of the Watergate scandal, former president Richard Nixon submitted to a series of marathon interviews with British television personality David Frost, a viewer should be cautioned to not accept at face value much of what occurs in Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Yet even though many of the play's fabricated incidents — a revealing late-night phone call from an inebriated Nixon, a desperate last-ditch effort by Nixon's chief of staff to save the former president from himself — never happened, it is still easy to be swept up in the tide of events that are being chronicled here, for Morgan is a storyteller in the grand tradition.

How grand? Let's not forget that Shakespeare's histories, though peopled with real kings and queens, are in fact fictions. No one presumes to think that Richard III really said, "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York." But what delicious characters the Bard created.

So it is with Morgan. Last year the Oscars for Best Actor and Actress went to Helen Mirren's title-role performance in The Queen and to Forest Whitaker's Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Morgan wrote both of those screenplays. He has the audacious ability to make that facts-be-damned leap of faith that allows a writer to enter the minds of historical figures. In Frost/Nixon he takes on America's most conspicuous pariah: Richard Nixon, who from the height of unfathomable power was reduced to a twentieth-century Philip Nolan, the man without a constituency.

But as the title makes clear, telejournalist/entrepreneur David Frost is equally important to the mix. For in addition to telling the labyrinthine tale of how the interviews came to be, this play's deeper ambition is to scrutinize the meshing of politics and entertainment, and to comment on the power of television to manipulate our sensibilities. Frost/Nixon fits into the same genre as Robert Redford's 1994 film Quiz Show, in which the final comment, delivered to a Congressional panel investigating the 1950s quiz-show riggings, is, "It's not exactly like we're hardened criminals here. We're in show business."

Frost/Nixon is a thought-provoking yet shamelessly entertaining show. But this Rep production does not do it justice. For starters, the ugly scenic design fails to enhance the story. And the twelve small television monitors above the set are at best worthless distractions. The script talks about how, at his most anguished, Nixon's close-up filled "every television screen in the country." But these monitors — rather than becoming the focus of the evening — are like gnats on the edge of a beam of light: irrelevant and easily ignored.

As directed without nuance by Steven Woolf, it's as if the actors learned their lines but were advised to ignore the stage directions between those lines. Consider, for instance, the opening scene: the lead-up to Nixon's resignation speech on August 8, 1974. (You can find the actual behind-the-scenes footage of that historic night on YouTube, and it is stunning.) In capturing that eerie moment, the script faithfully includes the excruciatingly corny jokes Nixon told that night. But then Morgan adds the note, "It's the condemned man talking with his executioners." Keith Jochim's Nixon misses that entirely. At this climactic, perilous moment in history, he might as well be taping a promo for a used car lot. ("Hi. Richard Nixon here.") Throughout the evening Jochim has the mannerisms down, but he lacks gravitas. And without it Nixon is not a formidable antagonist.

Nor is the actor who plays Jim Reston, the member of Frost's research team who is an expert on "the corruption, criminal dishonesty, paranoia and abuses of power of Richard Nixon," up to the formidable task of being both the play's narrator and its surreptitious judge. It remains for Jeff Talbott's David Frost to step in and fill the vacuum. As the plucky globetrotter who unexpectedly finds himself symbiotically linked with his disgraced prey, Talbott's multifaceted Frost comes across as more ambitious, insecure and complex than Nixon. But even in a story where the truth authorizes fiction, surely the playwright did not intend for his truths to be stretched that far. 

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