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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The story is told from the point of view of television host David Frost, who wanted to regain his place in the sun by parlaying interviews with disgraced President Richard Nixon, whose resignation was instigated by his complicity in break-ins to the Democrats' offices at Watergate. Both versions are riveting but the play, with its peeled-down staging illuminated only by video projections on the back wall, has a power that the film which, necessarily, breaks the fourth wall lacks. This is a people story and the film's shots of airports, hotel rooms and Nixon's villa on the Pacific soften and colorize that.
Peter Morgan calls his play a fiction though, of course, it's based on the verbatim Frost/Nixon interviews. Morgan does better at probing the depths of Nixon's character, particularly in the late night phone call he's given him. After countless drinks, Nixon phones Frost's hotel and rambles on about the similarity in their backgrounds, both poor boys who were always silkily despised by the Establishment, no matter how high they rose. Frost doesn't respond in kind but we get a glimpse of his feelings when, after hanging up, he barks at his girlfriend who has just returned with Room Service that he has to work.
This fictional motivation adds heft to Frost's ultimate attack-dog approach, fueled by the transcripts of the Colson/Nixon phone tapes James Reston just dug up which reveal that Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in. Although "I let the people down"may be the closest Nixon ever gets to an apology, his astounding statement that when the President does it, it's not illegal reveals the nature of the man. Morgan uses the search for truth to make this a suspense play, skillfully building to its climactic moment.
His crisp dialogue finds moments of humor as do his leading men. Neither bears any physical resemblance to his character but Stacy Keach as Nixon has the voice down pat. He also brings heft and a fathomless despair to the character. Alan Cox as Frost is dapper, confident and the kind of young playboy that Nixon can only wistfully envy. Brian Sgambati brings a youthful forcefulness to James Reston who also serves as Narrator in the beginning and is a more prominent character in the play than in the film. Stephen Rowe in the dual role of Swifty Lazar and Mike Wallace diversifies each with panache.
Morgan's play is also a play about another medium, television, which has changed the world and slyly illustrates how Frost, a young man in a young industry, has learned to master it.
For a review of of the play in London and on Broadway go here.