In 1977, British talk-show host David Frost conducted a series of four interviews with Richard Nixon, the former president of the United States who resigned in disgrace in 1974 in the face of almost certain impeachment on obstruction of justice charges related to his role in the cover-up of the Watergate scandal.
While Nixon’s subsequent full pardon by President Gerald Ford ended any possibility of an indictment or admission of guilt, the court of public opinion wasn’t quite done with Nixon … and neither was Frost.
Peter Morgan’s riveting 2006 play “Frost/Nixon” is the second of Bay Street Theater’s mainstage season. Directed by Sarna Lapine, it runs through July 22 and recreates not only key points in the interviews, but also behind the scenes tactics and inner-workings of the teams coaching both Frost (Daniel Gerroll) and Nixon (Harris Yulin).
For Frost, a relative journalistic light-weight, the goal of the interviews was to do what no other reporter had yet been able to — get Nixon to accept full responsibility for his role in Watergate and issue a heartfelt apologize to the American people. For Nixon, the interviews were about repairing his shattered image and bringing in a bit of money.
While the verbal sparring and on-camera maneuverings in “Frost/Nixon” offer some great tension between the two sides, not unlike a high-stakes boxing match, ultimately, this is a piece of theater that will best be enjoyed by policy wonks, political junkies, and those who recall Nixon with a great deal of loathing and disdain — which is pretty much anyone who was under 30 in the early 1970s.
But what happens off-camera is perhaps more revealing than the interviews themselves, and offering advice and extensive research for the Frost team are author and Nixon expert Jim Reston (Christian Conn) who also narrates much of the play, journalist and editor Bob Zelnick (Brian Keane), producer John Birt (Price Waldman), and Caroline Cushing (Danielle Slavick), Frost’s girlfriend. Nixon’s team includes his protective and patriotic chief of staff Jack Brennan (Rich Topol), long-time valet Manolo Sanchez (Michael Corvino), and his hard-bargaining agent Swifty Lazar (Stephen Lee Anderson) who secures Nixon $600,000 for his participation in the interviews as well as an unprecedented (and quite controversial) cut of any profits from their airing.
The sweet “checkbook journalism” deal for Nixon actually makes the motives and relationship between he and Frost more complicated than would a straightforward interview. We watch Nixon out-maneuver Frost the second cameras begin rolling. The play makes it clear that Nixon is a cagey opponent and even when cornered, had a way slipping through the cracks with the use of a bit of creative verbiage. They didn’t call him “Tricky Dick” for nothing and Nixon easily transforms questions as direct as “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?” into half-hour monologues about faith, family and his belief in the American spirit. Frost has no idea how to get back on topic and the first hour evaporates with no new revelations.
Nixon’s camp is pleased, but for Frost and his people, it’s do or die. He is in over his head, both personally and financially, and has to get something new and meaty from Nixon if the interviews are to succeed.
But Nixon also has a financial stake in the project, so has reason to play ball. On the night before their final interview, Nixon calls Frost. He’s been drinking and implies that only one of them will emerge the victor. He goads Frost to bring his best game — perhaps because he’s getting a cut of the gross — to spice up the final installment, which will cover Watergate.
The next morning, the stage is set, Frost comes armed for battle with new, previously unknown information. Nixon, meanwhile, has no memory of having made the call — at least he isn’t admitting to it.
Nixon comes out looking like a figure from a Greek tragedy in this play and Mr. Yulin plays him with a skill that borders on genius. Unlikable, unfunny and a bit of a snake oil salesman, he nonetheless brings to his character a level of awkward charm and a candid humor about his own failings. Throughout the play, many of Nixon’s jokes fall flat in a perpetual case of “too soon” — indicating this was a man who clearly didn’t understand his audience despite desperately wanting to connect with them. Nixon is not an easy soul to portray sympathetically, and while we may not leave the theater liking him anymore than we did when we entered, thanks to Mr. Yulin’s spot on portrayal, we at least come away possessing a bit of understanding and a smidgen of empathy for the fallen president.
David Frost is Nixon’s opposite in every conceivable way — attractive, charming and a magnet for beautiful women — and Daniel Gerroll portrays him with great skill and depth. For all his outward charisma, as the play progresses, it’s evident that Frost is in real danger of losing control of everything in his life. With Nixon he’s bitten off more than he can chew, both in terms of his interrogation skills and his bank account. Not only is he self-financing the Nixon interviews, as the days go by he realizes he is getting little of substance to attract advertisers and recoup his investment. Meanwhile, his talk shows on three continents have been or are about to be cancelled. The interviews are a final act of a desperate man and Gerroll is masterful in the way in which he is able to keep calm and carry on, at least on the surface, while obviously cracking under the stress of what he’s gotten himself into.
Much of the credit goes to Ms. Lapine’s insightful direction, which is spot on and heightened by Wilson Chin’s clever set incorporating oversized 1970s-era television cameras which project multiple images of the interview on the back wall of the stage. It’s a meaningful use of space given that, in the end of “Frost/Nixon,” we realize images matter far more than words (something Nixon learned during his disastrous 1960 televised debate against John F. Kennedy).
It’s apparent that Frost understood the truth of television all along, even better than the team behind him. While they wanted nothing less than a full verbal confession from the ex-president, the camera ultimately managed to reveal what Nixon’s words did not.
In a complicated, opaque way, both Nixon and Frost got what they wanted … as did the American public.
“Frost/Nixon” runs through July 22 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, and also features summer intern Cecillia Koueth playing ancillary roles in the production. “Talkback Tuesdays” with members of the cast will be offered on July 10, and July 17 immediately following the performance. For tickets, visit baystreet.org or call the box office at (631) 725-9500.