This afternoon my wife Rene and I went to the Kennedy Center in Washington to see a matinee performance of Peter Morgan’s acclaimed play Frost/Nixon, starring Stacy Keach as Richard Nixon and Alan Cox as David Frost, in a dramatization of their celebrated TV encounters of 1977 (which will soon be available on DVD; Frost recently appeared on The Daily Show to promote this release).
The experience was a somewhat disorienting one, and not simply because it starting with my looking at Robert Berks’s gigantic bust of John F. Kennedy, while waiting for Rene to park the car, and reflecting that it was the 45th anniversary of his death. (It’s worth noting that in a scene when Bob Ari, in the role of Bob Zelnick who helped produce the interviews, imitated RN ranting about JFK’s sex life, almost no one in the audience laughed.)
Similarly disorienting were the pop-culture overtones evoked in the makeup and costuming of the actors. Stacy Keach’s compact features, at his age, already make him look like J. Edgar Hoover, and touching up his hairline to suggest a Nixonian widow’s peak instead makes him look like Hoover impersonating Ed Sullivan, especially when he leans forward, raises his shoulders, and wears a dark suit of the kind familiar to Sunday-night TV viewers of the Sixties. Alan Cox looks and is dressed very much like Frost during that time, but his vocal timbre and intonations in his role are incredibly close to Eric Idle portraying Timmy Williams (ie, lampooning Frost) on Monty Python; indeed, Idle actually played Frost opposite Dan Aykroyd’s Nixon on Saturday Night Live when the original interviews were aired.
And, speaking of Aykroyd, Brian Sgambati, taking the part of James Reston Jr (author of the then-unpublished book on which Frost/Nixon was based, and the play’s narrator in effect), looks and talks startlingly like him, right down to a hairdo reminiscent of the comedian’s old Tom Snyder impression, and a wardrobe almost straight out of his “Fred Garvin, Male Prostitute” sketch. And then there’s Noel Velez in the role of RN’s valet Manolo Sanchez. In 1977, Sanchez was 47 and was impeccably dressed to suit his role at La Casa Pacifica. Velez looks less than half that age and his resemblance to Wilmer Valderrama is only accentuated by his being garbed just like that actor as Fez on That 70s Show.
But although all this is a bit distracting during the first two-thirds of the play, which, during that time, has its elements of knockabout farce (accentuated by Stephen Rowe’s wry turn as agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar and Ted Koch’s somewhat caricatured performance as Nixon aide Col. Jack Brennan), the final third of the drama, which comes down to the blistering confrontation between Frost and Nixon over Watergate, is quite effective.
Despite his lack of physical resemblance to Nixon and his sometimes overstressed body language, Keach, although not doing a David Frye or Aykroyd-type impression vocally, has Nixon’s speech patterns and emphases down to a remarkable degree. In fact, his replications of material from the historical record such as the resignation speech, the remarks to the staff, and the passages from the Frost interviews, are so thoroughly faithful to the originals that one wonders if playing a tape of his performance next to the original Nixon videos would show an almost nanosecond-for-nanosecond correspondence, in the way that Jim Carrey managed to microscopically duplicate Andy Kaufman’s routines in Man On The Moon.
But Keach’s performance is not a mere re-creation. He quite effectively realizes the emotional depths of his character. The last moments of the play, in which he, as Nixon, speaks of the mistakes made in his presidency and how he must always live with having let down the American people to that degree, are thoroughly moving, and reminded this viewer that Keach once thrilled off-Broadway audiences as Hamlet, and will close the circle by portraying King Lear at the Kennedy Center next spring.
Mention should also be made of the skillfully staged and timed direction by Michael Grandage (who worked in that role in the original London and Broadway productions with Frank Langella as Nixon) and the highly effective use of video by Jon Driscoll.
I haven’t seen the Ron Howard film yet, but I can assure the reader that the touring version of Frost/Nixon provides a very engaging theatrical experience, and is well worth the $30 or $50 or $75 spent to see it.