At Vintage Theatre, a strong cast portrays the unholy intersection of politics and entertainment
With the smell of impeachment in the air, it’s a perfect time to mount a production of Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan’s 2006 play detailing the famous interview between a disgraced ex-president and a talk-show host looking for his next gig.
The president, of course, is Richard Nixon, who’d been laying low in San Clemente since resigning in 1974. It’s now 1977, and he’s ready to talk. British TV personality David Frost is eager to regain the limelight after some shows of his didn’t pan out, and he manages to score a series of interviews with Nixon.
Morgan’s play details the behind-the-scenes negotiating between Frost’s agent Swifty Lazar and Nixon and his people, the upshot being that Nixon will talk — at a price. Decried at the time as “checkbook journalism,” Frost’s Nixon interviews went on to garner enormous audiences. Today, we mostly remember them for Nixon’s infamous quote about presidential power: “when the president does it … that means that it is not illegal.”
Scott Gaines as Frost on a late-night call with a tipsy Nixon (Denis Berkfeldt.)
In the Vintage Theatre production, Nixon is played superbly by Denis Berkfeldt. Without going too far into caricature, Berkfeldt captures Nixons wiggly jowls, gravelly voice and obstinate mannerisms and establishes the character as the immovable force in the face of Frost’s persistence.
As Frost, Scott Gaines captures the interviewer’s progression from an opportunist looking for a quick hit to his eventual realization that he could really lure Nixon out into the open field of truth. At least to my American ear, Gaines’s British accent sounded legit and consistent throughout the performance, and the actor also conveyed Frost’s grace and cunning.
With the stage set, much of the first act is focused on the negotiations between Nixon and Frost. Lazar (portrayed with oleaginous flair by John W. B. Greene) sees the potential for a big payday, helping establish early on the unholy alliance between politics and entertainment. Nixon is just as grasping, eagerly taking the up-front $600,000 Frost puts up himself as a means to keep him comfortable on the California coast.
Cat and mouse
When we get to the interviews, there’s a bit of a boxing-match setup going on, with each man trying to score a hit while the coaches on the sidelines review the body blows during the breaks. On Frost’s side, that’s William B. Kahn as journalist Jim Reston (he also serves as narrator) and Allistair Basse as ABC News producer Bob Zelnick. Also on hand is Owen T. Iland as British TV producer John Birt, who does yeoman’s work as the head hand-wringer over the whole process.
For Nixon, his primary confidante is chief of staff Jack Brennan —played as a faithful bulldog by Eric Carlson.
With Nixon determined to deflect any hardball questions and turn them to his advantage and Frost out to nail the “gotcha!”, Frost/Nixon is an entertaining and even suspenseful take on the historic interviews. The performances are all solid, but the production suffers from a script that simply has too many characters in it for Vintage’s tiny stage. Director Craig Bond does a good job moving everyone around, but with a cast of 11, it’s a lot to manage. In addition to the aforementioned characters, there’s also Nixon’s manservant Manolo (Ben Butler), Griffen Davis as the camera operator (and a few other small parts), Natalie Kilkenny as Pat Nixon and a few others and Iliana Lucero Barron as Frost’s girlfriend.
William B. Kahn as Jim Reston
There are a few rough edges hopefully still to be worked out. The upstage wall is festooned with images of televisions — an effect that comes across as hokey. Costumes and wigs are also in need of some tweaking, with pant hems either too long or short and a few instances of severely rumpled suit jackets. Gaines certainly needed a wig to accurately portray Frost, but the one they found for him is, um, not great. And I’m not sure if that was Kahn’s hair or a wig, but the wild coif doesn’t look like any photos I could find of Jim Reston.
Some of those cosmetic considerations aside, Vintage has another nice show on its hands with Frost/Nixon. It’s striking to see the degree to which Nixon continued to mischaracterize his presidency even several years after the fact, at the same time it’s possible to see how he had at least some modicum of contrition — a marked difference from the current occupant of the White House.