Tuesday, March 3, 2015


by Toby Zinman



by Toby Zinman

for the Inquirer

 The “Gotcha!” heard round the world. 

Peter Morgan’s fascinating play, Frost/Nixon, is about David Frost’s now-legendary television interviews of Richard Nixon that capped an important and shameful chapter in twentieth century American history. New City Stage is giving this historical drama a riveting Philadelphia premiere: the cast is exceptionally strong and the direction, by Aaron Cromie, is exceptionally taut.

On what seems like a mad whim, the British talk show host and playboy, given to Italian shoes and Bentleys and beautiful women, a man who knew nothing about politics but knew everything about television, wrote to Nixon asking him to agree to a series of interviews. This was three years after the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s consequent resignation of the presidency. Astonishingly, Nixon agrees.

The run-up to the interviews provides some interesting background: James Reston (J Hernandez), the passionate liberal obsessed with Nixon as evil; excitable Bob Zelnick (Sam Sherburne) a TV producer, and Nixon’s stiff-necked Chief of Staff (Jered McLenigan). We learn about how deals were done (David Bardeen is terrific as Swifty Lazar, Nixon’s germ-phobic agent); lots of money changed hands: this was a high-risk venture in a variety of ways.

And even though the audience knew the outcome, the tension is palpable. We watch the whole project (and the whole play) turn on the discovery of a new piece of incriminating evidence, enabling Frost to force Nixon to finally admit his guilt and to apologize to the American people.

The show belongs to the two powerful actors who portray David Frost (Russ Widdall) and Richard Nixon (Dan Olmstead). 

Widdall manages to shade his performance from annoying insouciance to appalled seriousness; his face actually seems to turn gray as he realizes what he is about to do: “He wants me to do it, he wants me to finish him off.”

Olmstead is remarkable as Nixon, getting the mannerisms and the posture, all without a whiff of parody. He shows us a President far smarter and far more troubled than he seemed. And just as Nixon controlled the interviews from the start, he controls the play—up until the moment he doesn’t.

Toward the end of the play, Nixon calls Frost late at night. The two men stand only a few feet apart, each holding a phone, talking and listening. Nixon is drunk and articulate; Frost is at first amused and then irritated and then deeply moved. This is one of those perfectly theatrical moments that can only happen when really good actors have really good material.

Frost/Nixon is part of New City Stage’s season of  presidential politics; RFK  just finished, and coming next is a play called Hinkley.


New City Stage Co. at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., through Jan.5.  Tickets $ 30-35. Information: www.NewCityStage.org or 215-563-7500

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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