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