Frank Langella as our 37th President and Michael Sheen as the eventually knighted talk-show host square off for classic, career-changing Q&As, refereed (as they were in London) by Michael Grandage, artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse where the play originated prior to its West End transfer to the Gielgud. In real life, both parties rose to the bait of big bucks and entered this public arena, in hopes of a comeback.
It is the most riveting interrogation to hit Broadway since — well, since Christopher Plummer asked Brian Dennehy to take to the stand to defend the Holy Bible in Inherit the Wind ten days ago, and it may be much longer than that, given the political underpinnings of Frost/Nixon. In any event, both clashes of titans sparked some of the season's most spectacular acting — indeed, Langella and Sheen, as well as Morgan, contended for Oliviers. A couple of Tony hopefuls (Liev Schreiber from Talk Radio and Kevin Spacey from A Moon for the Misbegotten, to name Names) even showed up on opening night and — with progressively rigid jawlines — checked out the competition ahead.
Langella, who has won Tonys as a lizard (literally, in Edward Albee's Seascape) and as a Russian fop (in Fortune's Fool), lumbers about the stage the picture of defeat and regret buffered by bluster, reeling from Sheen's air-slicing jabs. His depiction of Nixon crumbling in close-up is the stuff of King Lear, and the leadened way Langella plays it with stooped and sagging shoulders and a gruff growl suggests another King — Kong.
"I think we're watching a Tony winner tonight," opted Larry Pine, arriving at the Tavern on the Green after-party. "I don't know how anybody could beat a performance like that."
Zoe Caldwell, Pine's recent co-star in A Spanish Play, was equally ecstatic: "Tonight I had a wonderful time. I've never worked with Frank, but I've known him since he was a pup." Jessica Walter, with her beautiful non-actress daughter (whose high-school best friend is lead producer Arielle Tepper Madover), seconded Pine's opinion in spades and italics: "Anybody who could bring humanity to Richard Nixon — absolutely brilliant. I think the show should be up for a Tony, and I think the two guys should be up. Every one of those supporting people were wonderful — absolutely wonderful. This is what theatre should be."
Langella's greatest performance of the evening was pooh-poohing all the palm leaves that were falling in his direction. "It's not all that difficult, really," he tried to contend. "When I look at a performance that awes me, I have to ask, 'How did you play that cantata?' The answer is always so simple — 'Oh, my mother made me take lessons.' When you're inside the work doing your work, you don't really pay attention to how you do it. Nixon's voice, I admit, took a while, but it finally came to me. This is a great part, and it's a great play."
Should Langella take the Tony, it would make a triple crown for Morgan, who follows the same guideline as a playwright that he does as a screenwriter — take a person of power, infect them with an Achilles' heel kind of incident and watch them disintegrate. He did it with Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland" and with Elizabeth II in "The Queen," making Oscar work for Forest Whitaker and Helen Mirren. Can a Tony be far behind?
"It's the relationship in Frost/Nixon that really intrigued me, not the politics," admitted the author. "If it hadn't have been for David Frost, I would never have written about Richard Nixon. It was such an appealing — to a dramatist — cocktail of characters."
Play Two is running around in Morgan's head, but next out of the hopper is a film for the director (Stephen Frears) and producers of "The Queen," likewise based on a true story. "It's about an alcoholic soccer coach in the '70s, Brian Clark, and it'll have a very small audience, I think. Right now, we're thinking of calling it Old Big Head." Sheen will star.
Real-life characters are something of a specialty with Sheen, who made his Broadway debut in '99 as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and spent last year as Morgan's Tony Blair in "The Queen" and in Donmar's Caligula. "I've done a lot more real-life characters than that, but they're just people that American audiences would not be familiar with. There's a British comic actor called Kenneth Williams, who was in the 'Carry On' series. I did a TV film on him called 'Fantabuloso.'" [It got him a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor and just won him the Royal Television Society Award.] "I played H.G. Wells as well this year, and Nero."
Happily, he loves the research. "It's like going back to school again, but I really enjoy it."
It's tricky and a tad intimidating to play real people, Sheen said. "You have to find the right balance. It shouldn't be an impersonation. You have to make the audience come to the idea you are that person. You have to do everything you do for a fictional character, but you also have a preconception to work from. David introduced me on his show in Britain, saying, 'Michael Sheen is playing me, and he will have to watch all the footage of all the interviews I've ever done. Lucky boy!' It was amazing to be able to do that."
Not that everything in Frost/Nixon was, head-on, The Week That Was. Morgan jiggled and finessed facts to create his own reality, according to Sheen. "The way Peter writes and the way he works — there's sort of a meeting between the facts of the situation and the truth of the situation, and there's a difference I think between facts and truth. The truth is something like when Picasso started going into cubism. Now, it wasn't anything you recognize, but that doesn't make it any less true. And I think what Peter goes for — in things like 'The Queen' and 'The Last King of Scotland' and Frost/Nixon — is to do a different kind of truth, which is based on things that really did happen and things that didn't happen, but they reflect on the psychological reality, the emotional reality and the factual reality of what happened. So, in terms of how true it is, people can take what they want.
"It's a pivotal moment in American history [that] Frost/Nixon talks about — when television changed politics, when suddenly politicians became aware they had to be very careful how they were perceived by cameras. The lines between politics and entertainment started to blur. Also, there are a lot of echoes in the play to do with the present administration."
The lines between the real characters and the reenactors were also blurred on opening night when both worlds were represented, starting with Sir David Paradine Frost himself. The talk-show titan, who turned 68 earlier this month, arrived in a royal contingent that included The Duchess of York (Forever "Fergie" to the world). The duchess did not do the party, perhaps for fear reporters would ask for her review of Morgan's 'The Queen.'
Frost was hardly withholding on his verdict about the play. "The most interesting thing for me," he observed, "was that some jokes that got a bigger laugh in London, and then there were other jokes that got a bigger laugh here. But, mostly, it's common to both. One or two of the fictional things I could do without, but basically I think it is absolutely brilliantly written, brilliantly acted and brilliantly directed. It's a great night of theatre."
One example of poetic license was the crucial information unearthed from the presidential tapes that blew Nixon out of the water. As depicted in the play, it was an eleventh-hour arrival, right before the final taping. In truth, "I got that ammunition that's mentioned in the play about eight months earlier, but it was changed for the drama."
Other than the two leads, Corey Johnson is the only other actor to reprise his London performance on Broadway. He plays Jack Brennan, Nixon's pit-bull protector, a military man who resigned his commission to work for the ex-President. "I met him in January in London," beamed Johnson. "Jonathan Akin, who knew Jack Brennan in the '70s, arranged for Jack and his family to come over and see the play. I had a Coke, and Jack had some drinks, and we chatted about Nixon. Then, I got to chat with Akin about Jack and Nixon. Jack's got his own business on the East Coast. He's talking about coming to see this production. He wants to bring his grandkids because it was an important period in his life. He seems like someone who's got his head in a good place. He did something for this man he felt was the right thing to do, and because he felt it was the right thing to do, he did it. And then, when he finished his duty with this man, he got on with his life."
In real life, Brennan didn't wear a military uniform for his stint with Nixon. "This is my theatrical license I'm taking with the guy," said Johnson. "Nor did he have a crew cut."
Stephen Kunken, who appropriately enough made his Broadway debut in Proof, plays Jim Reston, the writer-researcher who came up with the info that brought Nixon down. "Jim was here tonight," he said, "and I was just thrilled because I finally got to meet him. He was so nice. He actually said I nailed him perfectly. His brother and his whole family said, 'How did you know?' Well, I was really fortunate because Jim is a very prolific writer, and I read a lot of his nonfiction stuff that gives you this huge entryway into who he is. I got to know him incredibly well through his writing — which is a very different way. Most people think you go visually, and I usually do — I look at pictures and materials — but in this there's something really liberating about reading it and going through it that way.
"I've never had the opportunity of playing somebody who came and saw the show. He wrote me he was coming tonight, and it was different than I thought it would be. I thought it'd be intimidating, but it was just the right energy. 'I'm going to do this guy justice.'"
Armand Schultz also had in attendance his counterpart — Bob Zelnick, whose work on the Frost team earned his entry at ABC News as a correspondent. "After we'd been in rehearsal for a couple of weeks, I called Bob," Schultz recalled. "We played phone tag, and then, when he called back, we were both watching the same NCAA basketball game. I said, 'Can I call you back when it's over?' He said, 'Yeah, yeah.' Then we spoke on the phone from 10 o'clock at night until 12:30 in the morning. I wanted to ask him historical questions. A lot of the show is historical, and a lot of it is obviously Peter Morgan's version of what happened. He was fabulous on letting me know inside things about him that helped when I went back into rehearsal for the second two weeks.
"I'm not really doing Bob Zelnick, but I am. I remember watching Bob on ABC News for years. He was the correspondent for the Supreme Court and the Pentagon, so I knew what his delivery was. I didn't really try to do that. If you talk to him, he has a very low cadence and that would reach 25 rows back, but on the microphone you know who he is."
Opening night was Zelnick's first time to see himself on the stage. "It was a great experience. This was a big part of my life in terms of the commitment at the time and in terms of opening doors to ABC. I don't think I would have ended up a correspondent if I didn't have the selling point of the Frost/Nixon interviews. Brilliantly written, excellent theatre. Some poetic license was taken with fact, but the author acknowledges that."
And he was pleased with how he was presented. "I have no complaints at all. I'm flattered. Any time you're portrayed by someone 30 years younger than you, it's not bad."
The other key member of the Frost team, John Birt, escaped the radar of the actor portraying him. "I haven't met him," admitted Remy Auberjonois, who creatively disfigures himself with a comb-over. "We made a conscious decision not to make him John Birt. Because he's not well-known here, we didn't feel it was necessary to make him the actual guy. I'm playing a character named John Birt who has similar characteristics." Bob Ari, who understudied Nathan Lane in The Man Who Came to Dinner, has drawn the black bean again and is standing by for Langella. "I went up to Michael Sheen and said, 'You did the show for nine months in England. Did he ever miss a show?' Never. Never. I said, 'Thank God' — because that's daunting. I have it under my belt now, and I'm ready to go. It's like insurance: You pay it, and you're pissed off that you're paying for it, but when you need it, you're awfully glad you have it. I hope I get on. At least once."
Director Grandage, who'll be 45 next month, was enjoying the colonies' radically different response to the play. "I was thrilled," he declared emphatically. "It's the first time I've experienced an American audience with a play since I've not been on Broadway before. It's been fascinating for me to watch how America receives this play, having done it in England. It's a very different dynamic. You obviously understand so much about Richard Nixon that maybe didn't quite get through in England where they favored and understood a lot more about David Frost. The two here are in a slightly different place."
He won't be resting on any laurels right now, although there were plenty for him in the morning papers. "I'm going back to carry on running the Donmar," he said. "We have an opening night on Wednesday, which I need to get back for: Kiss of the Spider Woman [the play, not the musical] with Will Keen and Rupert Evans. Then there's a whole lot of planning to do for the next year, but I'll come back to keep an eye on this show."
Harvey Weinstein, arriving with Geraldine Chapman as one of the producers of Frost/Nixon, said he made a special point of skipping the closing of his other Broadway show hours earlier. "I can't believe The Producers is closed. I haven't begun to admit it to myself."
Representing another branch of journalistic whistle-blowing at the opening were The New York Times' Frank Rich and Alex Witchell, who are portrayed in the new John Malkovich movie, "Color Me Kubrick," by William Hootkins and Marisa Berenson. Years ago, on a play-watching expedition in London, they found themselves sitting next to a boorish stranger who claimed to be Stanley Kubrick. Rich's subsequent article in The Times about the incident helped topple the impostor who'd worked that charade for years.
"We were asked to play ourselves in the movie and turned them down," Rich admitted. Nor have they viewed the results. "We have the disc, but we haven't watched it yet."
Tony Bennett, who came with Susan Crow, was one of the first-nighters who had already seen Frost/Nixon in London. Another was "Sex and the City" star Kim Cattrall. "It's the third time I've seen it," she said. "I saw it at the Donmar Warehouse in August and again in October. I was in a David Mamet play there called The Cryptogram."
Next, Cattrall will be doing a film in Dublin called "My Boy Jack." "It's the story of Rudyard Kipling and his family — I play Carrie Kipling, his wife — at the time their son is killed in the first World War. The title role will be played by Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Potter) prior to coming to Broadway with Richard Griffiths in Equus."
Tony-winning choreographer Rob Ashford, delighting in the coin-jangling going on over his Curtains, isn't doing any laurel-resting either. "I start tomorrow a workshop of Cry-Baby, this new musical based on the John Waters 1990 movie." Conrad John Schuck and Jan Maxwell are starring at the lift-off, and the Johnny Depp title role, Ashford declared, "will be played by a 22-year-old guy from L.A. you've never heard of, but you'll know him after this — James Snyder. It's being directed by Mark Brokaw. The workshop will last four weeks, and then we'll do it again in La Jolla in September."
Flame-haired Frances Fisher was in attendance by virtue of being a friend of Michael Sheen, having the same manager and being in New York at the right time. "I just saw Kevin Spacey, who's another friend of mine, this afternoon. I've had five hours of extraordinary theatre." Which makes a girl want to get back onstage again. "The last theatre I did was The Cherry Orchard with Annette Bening last year. I'm dying to come back to New York and do another play. I think my last play here was in 1984 at the Joyce Theatre. I haven't been here for, like, 26 years. I have been doing lots of movies."
Others at the opening included Journey's End's Hugh Dancy with Claire Danes, Jane Krakowski, Jo Anne Worley (trilling shrilly over her eighth performance in The Drowsy Chaperone — she calls me "Mr. Playbill"), Duncan Sheik in flip-flops with his Spring Awakening lyricist-librettist Steven Sater, Barbara Cook with Harvey Evans, Naomi Watts, Simon Jones (who has started rehearsing Phallacy with Lisa Harrow for their Cherry Lane opening on May 16), Barbara Walters (introducing Cindy Adams to her date as "my very good friend"), Mike Wallace (depicted in a brief film sequence in the play with eerie exactness by Stephen Rowe, who then shaves his dome and passes for Swifty Lazar), novelist Dominick Dunne and Coram Boy director Melly Still.
An era is drawing to a close with this season. Broadway's party-giving Perle Mesta, Suzanne Tobak, announced she will be passing out her last party hats and horns at the Tony Awards on June 10, leaving the business of feting first-nighters to her partner, Michael Lawrence. "I'll be working full time at The Actors Fund. I'm excited. It's the most wonderful organization in the world. It's their 125th anniversary, so they have a very ambitious schedule of events and a lot of fund-raising opportunities, and it gives me a chance to return to not-for-profit and give back. How many of these opening-night parties can we go to?"
I'm thinking, I'm thinking.