What do you get when a flaky British talk-show host and a disgraced American ex-President go mano-a-mano? Playwright Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon focuses on the 1977 TV interview in which David Frost got Richard Nixon to admit to his Watergate sins.
Both had a lot at stake. Frost hoped to revive his flagging career and make a fortune; he’d lose everything if the show failed. Nixon wanted to rehabilitate his tarnished reputation but risked cementing his image as Tricky Dick forever.
Max Reimer makes his Playhouse debut as Artistic Managing Director with this Canadian premiere, a co-production with Toronto’s Canadian Stage Company, directed by Ted Dykstra and starring legendary Broadway actor Len Cariou as Nixon and David Storch as Frost.
Storch’s dynamic Frost drives the show. At first he’s all mannerism, a superficial Oscar Wilde in a ‘70s hairdo. By the final on-air showdown with Nixon he has grown into a hard-hitting interviewer who beats the master at his own game. Storch effectively steers the character from delightfully frivolous to penetratingly political.
Cariou looks and sounds nothing like the ex-President and avoids the kind of Nixon mimicry we’re used to seeing. What he gives us instead is a stolid portrait of the man behind the mask. He humanizes Nixon but only hints at the complicated, multi-dimensional character the play promises. I suspect that Cariou will inhabit the character much more fully as the run progresses.
Part of the problem is the play’s back-door attempt to establish Nixon as a tragic figure. Though liberal journalist Jim Reston (Ari Cohen) keeps telling us that the interview was all about revealing Nixon for the crook he was, the dramatization itself invites us to see him as the lion in winter, a great, flawed human being and a decent guy. I find that about as convincing as Stephen Harper in the fuzzy sweater.
Reston’s counterpart, Jack Brennan (Tom McBeath), zealously defends Nixon and, like Reston, tells the audience how to interpret what we’re seeing. McBeath and Cohen offer solid performances but do we really need to be told what to think? Alec Willows has a nice comic turn as Nixon’s New York agent and Andrea Runge is very good as Frost’s girlfriend in a cast of 12, many more than the script really needs.Patrick Clark’s set of shifting screens and Jamie Nesbitt’s projections underline how much what we think we know of public figures consists of media constructions. But are the minutiae of Watergate really still that fascinating more than 30 years after the fact—for a Canadian audience? My wife Sue thought so. We argued about the play all the way home from the theatre.