This may be the first time in recorded history that the movie The Avengers and the play Frost/Nixon get double-billing in a sentence, but just as you don't need to watch the horde of Marvel movies that set up the box-office blockbuster, you don't need intimate knowledge of Richard M. Nixon's tumultuous political fall to enjoy the play.
Peter Morgan's 2006 work, turned into a film two years later, doesn't get too caught up in the intricate details of the Watergate burglary that eventually led to the cover-up that derailed Nixon's presidency. But for someone without some working knowledge of that chaotic period in American history, it might be hard to appreciate the full impact of the interview British talk-show host David Frost conducted with the weary Nixon three years after his resignation.
That interview, along with its build-up and backstory, is the basis for this smart, insightful drama suffused with intensity and conflict. It's not a history lesson, a 100-minute Nixon-bashing session, or some tired re-enactment; it's an intriguing mental chess match and a compelling character study of two very different men whose similarities become more fascinating than those clear differences.
Frost/Nixon at Maverick Theater, www.mavericktheater.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m. Through May 27. $22; students, $10.
That's a credit to both Morgan's sharp, carefully measured script and Brian Newell's direction. Newell stages the show on a long platform sticking out from the center, which is the setting of the interview. During those scenes, lights pop up, making it seem as if the audience isn't watching a play as much as an interview in a TV studio. It makes things very intimate, but the three TV monitors that frame the space, which usually show Nixon speaking, create a visual distance. Your eye may be focused on the people in real time and space, but out of the corner of your eye, you're watching the disembodied televised image. This creates a fascinating visual ebb and flow that underscores the dual battlegrounds of this struggle: the desperation on the part of two men to claim victory, and the TV screen that, through the reductive power of the medium, eventually crowns that victor.
A range of characters is on the periphery, most notably a hard-boiled military officer and Nixon's chief of staff, Jack Brennan (Mark Coyan); Frost's prim and proper producer, John Birt (Robert Dean Nunez); and two American journalists (Rob Downs and Ben Green) brought in to help research Nixon's presidency for the telegenic but investigative-journalism-challenged Frost. They serve as a chorus of sorts, commenting on the behind-the-scenes stuff that needs to be dealt with in order to get to the heart of the play: the 12 days of two-hour interviews Frost conducted with Nixon in April 1977 in the living room of a house in OC's Monarch Bay. Morgan succinctly condenses the six hours of televised footage, showing how Nixon dominated most of the filming, as well as how Frost skillfully exploited the chinks in his armor, ultimately leading to the endgame that would shock and surprise an estimated viewing audience of 45 million, still the largest audience for a news interview.
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Joe Parrish may lack the huge head and sagging jowls of Nixon, but he looks and sounds just enough like him to make his portrayal work visually. Considering Nixon is one of the most recognizable—and caricatured—faces in America history, that's critical in a role like this. Even more important, though, is capturing some of the complexity of this incredibly complex figure. And Parrish's blend of weariness and battle-honed aggression is spot-on. David Herbelin looks and sounds even less like Frost; though he may not resemble the jet-setting playboy, his portrayal of Frost's transformation from cavalier talking head to gritty journalist rings just as authentic.
The genius in Morgan's play is that it early on stops being a play about two historical figures and becomes a story about two very real men. Issues of fame, redemption, fear and rejection reverberate, and while it's easy to choose sides—Nixon was a liar, for fuck's sake!—it's also easy to care deeply about these two men. For those who know the era well, this production is a satisfying reminder of why Watergate and everything that followed remain such an integral part of American politics and history. For those who don't, maybe it will inspire them to learn more about these interviews and explore the life and legacy of Orange County's most famous—and infamous—native son.
This review appeared in print as "Tricky Dicks: Maverick Theater's version of Frost/Nixon captures the tense, historic interview perfectly."