“Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
Sound familiar? It should because these words were spoken by an American president in defense of a crime — though it may not be the president, nor the crime, you’re thinking of.
The president was Richard Milhous Nixon who fell from grace (and office) in 1973 in the wake of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover up. That statement by Nixon came in response to a question posed by British talk-show host David Frost in which he asked about the legality of the president’s actions following Watergate as they related to national security.
The exchange was recorded during a series of 1977 interviews between Frost and Nixon and they are the subject of “Frost/Nixon,” the second production of the mainstage season at Bay Street Theater. Written in 2006 by Peter Morgan (creator of the Netflix series “The Crown”), the play will be directed by Sarna Lapine and runs June 26 to July 22. It stars Daniel Gerroll, who has appeared in many Bay Street’s productions, as David Frost while Bridgehampton’s Harris Yulin will take on the role of Richard Nixon.
For Gerroll, a native Brit who grew up watching Frost (and Frost imitators), capturing his persona on stage came somewhat naturally.
“It was quite easy to channel him in a way,” said Gerroll in a phone interview. “He was an iconic television figure. Whenever anyone wanted to parody a typical British TV reporter, his speech patterns were satirized. Even Monty Python did him in a bit.”
While channeling Frost is one challenge, for Gerroll the more complicated aspect of this play is revisiting preconceived notions about the infamous period in history that led up to the interviews and the man at the center of the controversy — Richard Nixon.
“It’s hard to have been a teen in the ‘60s and in college in the ‘70s and not have a pretty strong awareness of the events,” said Gerroll. “My mother’s family is American and based in Sag Harbor. I was in Sag Harbor in ‘72, and again in ‘73, more than most people in London I had strong awareness of the whole scene.”
“Rather like today with Trump, it’s bewildering that almost 50 percent of the country was pro-Nixon,” he added. “The younger generation was mocking the older for blind adherence to him.”
One of the main questions surrounding the Frost interviews, which were broadcast on television and radio in four separate installments,had to do with motivation — both on the part of the talk-show host as well as the former president.
Just prior to the interviews, Frost’s show had been canceled and he badly wanted to regain his reputation with the American public. For Nixon’s camp, doing the interviews was about reputation as well and the belief that Frost, who had been a lightweight interviewer of Nixon in the past, would go easy on him, offering Nixon a chance to repair his tarnished image.
But what Nixon and his people didn’t realize was that this time, Frost would come prepared.
“I think frankly the play, in order to turn reality into drama, would have to accentuate the moral conundrum,” said Gerroll. “One question was did Frost care about Nixon’s morality of behavior, or like P.T. Barnum, was he more of a showman than someone concerned with national security?”
Gerroll notes that because the playwright is Peter Morgan, who has earned rave reviews for writing about the British monarchy on “The Crown,” revisiting historic events is something he does quite capably in “Frost/Nixon” as well.
“It can’t be a documentary of actors repeating transcripts. Peter Morgan is very canny in dramatizing history,” he said. “There were so many individuals who had their own agendas around the two men, they are useful dramatis personae to tell the story.”
Then there was also the larger dynamic to consider — the American and the British public who had different reasons to tune in and cheer for either Frost, or Nixon as they sparred.
“The Americans were driven by the immorality of Nixon’s behavior, and the Brits the talk-show persona,” he added. “With Harris doing Nixon, it’s such perfect casting. On his side, he has the stalwart remnants of his administration trying to rebuild his character — it’s all there to be gleaned by a sharp playwright.”
Harris Yulin grew up in California and like many people from the Golden State, found nothing in Richard Nixon that was worth admiring.
“I knew of him from the Jerry Voorhisdays,” said Yulin in a phone interview, referring to Nixon’s first political opponent in the 1940s. “I knew his history and despised him all my life. I judged him harshly — and he deserved it from my point of view.”
Now, Yulin is portraying the 37thpresident on stage.
“I never imagined such a thing. I didn’t know if I could do it. It seemed a challenging prospect for a lot of reasons,” he said in a phone interview. “But I’m having such a terrific time.”
“Having played various people in life I was not a fan of — like Joe McCarthy — it’s always different when you get on the other side,” he added. “You knew he was an interesting character who had destroyed himself and risen from ashes.”
Instrumental in helping Yulin to put aside his long-held grudges against the long-dead president was a deep dive into history through some of the many books written about Nixon.
“I didn’t feel constrained by what I felt about him, just the size of the job, as it were, to give him a fair reading,” he said, “which we want to do with every character.”
In studying up on Nixon, the complexities of his character soon emerged for Yulin — including his policy during the Vietnam War.
“When the war came, it was grossly oversimplified. People were either for or against it rather than having any sense of the nuance,” said Yulin. “As soon as he got into office in ‘69 he started pulling troops out of Vietnam.”
“In reading about his policy and getting into it in more depth, one is really impressed, I have to say, by his intelligence and his sense of the world and anticipation of currents,” he added.
And firmly in the plus column under Nixon’s name, notes Yulin, is the fact that he started the clean water and the clean air act — legislation now under serious threat from the current administration in Washington, D.C.
“… And racial desegregation took greater strides under Nixon than it did under either Johnson or Kennedy,” noted Yulin. “I believe he had the best interest of the country at heart. His dream was a lasting peace, that’s what he was most interested in.”
Nixon was also interested in money, and one of the major controversies at the time of the interviews was the fact that he was paid $600,000 to take part (and promised a share of future profits). The notion of checkbook journalism didn’t sit well with many. But it turns out that Mike Wallace and CBS had also put an offer on the table for Nixon for half that amount. Nixon’s agent Swifty Lazar let it be known his client would be fielding other offers — and did. By the way, the characters of both Wallace and Lazar are featured in “Frost/Nixon” as well.
“As far as Nixon’s relationship with Frost, despite the contention between them to get at what Frost is trying to get at, there was a civility and decorum in their meetings which we used to have,” said Yulin. “There was a certain way to behave. Nixon had been president and had to act in a way we all consider to be presidential.”
Despite his firm dislike of Nixon throughout his entire life, it would seem that Yulin is starting to soften a bit in his opinions.
“I’m on a different side. When I look back, I understand everything, but it was so superficial and I was a much younger person,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun and I can’t stop reading about him. He’s an endlessly fascinating character and essentially, a product of our ethos in some way.”
“Frost/Nixon” runs June 26 to July 22 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. For the June 26 performance, a limited number of “Pay What You Can” tickets will be available at the box office beginning at 11 a.m. that day. Show starts at 7 p.m. To purchase tickets for other performances, call the Bay Street box office at (631) 725-9500 or purchase online at www.baystreet.org.