PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Frost/Nixon — David and His Zingshot

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23 Apr 2007

It has been 30 years and 10 days since Richard Milhous Nixon, for three years an out-of-work President, came apart in public and apologized for "letting down the entire nation" in the Watergate affair — a stunning moment in human history, captured first by the television cameras of David Frost and now by Peter Morgan's first play, Frost/Nixon, which officially laid siege April 22 to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre for what looks like a long stay.

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.


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