NEW YORK — Scrutinized by the mass media and skewered by "Saturday Night Live," modern American presidents cry out to be impersonated. Some demand more finesse than others (George H.W. Bush's accent is harder than Jimmy Carter's). But when it comes to Richard Nixon, it seems as though everyone's a Rich Little. All it takes is three ordinary words -- "my fellow Americans" -- to get the party started. Throw in a victory salute and you're ready to book yourself on "The Tonight Show."
What Frank Langella offers in "Frost/Nixon," the new drama by the hot British screenwriter Peter Morgan ("The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland"), is beyond your standard-issue mimicry. The play, which had its Broadway opening Sunday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, does ask him to morph into the Nixon we all know -- a hunched, tremulous mass of perspiring insecurity and shrewd, defensive intellect, with a rumbling voice that often seems in danger of retreating down his esophagus.
But Langella shapes his imitation through his formidable arsenal of interpretive acting. The Nixon onstage isn't a walking, talking Madame Tussauds exhibit but a dramatic character psychologically laid bare. There may be Broadway stars who resemble Nixon more. But there's no imposture in Langella's performance, which is carved out of patented theatrical truth.
Politically, there will be much to argue about. Morgan's drama, based on the series of television interviews that took place between British talk show host David Frost and the former president less than three years after he resigned in the disgraceful aftermath of the Watergate scandal, doesn't try to exculpate Nixon. But it does make every effort to humanize him.
For a figure whose name is still synonymous with corruption and coverup, this is bound to raise hackles. Some will accuse Morgan of going too easy; others might think he's gone too hard. But just as "The Queen" lends us a surprising sense of intimacy with the remote Queen Elizabeth II and "The Last King of Scotland" allows us to experience the crazy charisma of the bloody Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, "Frost/Nixon" sets out to understand a complicated leader rather than to indict or indulge him.
As the title suggests, Nixon is only half of the equation. The dapper Frost is played by Michael Sheen with the same dexterity he brought to the role of Prime Minister Tony Blair in "The Queen." It's just as much Frost's story as it is Nixon's -- the tale of a British celebrity playboy with a penchant for Pouilly Fuisse who attempts to regain lost stature through the interview coup of his era. Putting up his own money to lure Nixon out of his Orange County seclusion, Frost gambles his future for renewed American stardom, Concorde frequent flier miles and a regular table at Sardi's.
The contest pits Nixon's wily reticence against Frost's wily geniality. It's a battle of wits, presided over by a narrator who can hardly be described as impartial. That historical personage is Jim Reston (a delightfully manic Stephen Kunken with totally cool '70s styling), the journalist who provided Frost with background research on Watergate and who, in Morgan's take on events, fanatically wants to be part of the team that will elicit Nixon's long awaited apology to the nation.
Reston's energy is unflagging as he introduces us to the play's swirl of characters, including the Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar (a comically galvanic Stephen Rowe), who extracts as much money as he can for Nixon to do the interviews, and John Birt (Remy Auberjonois), the producer of Frost's TV show, who's astounded at the fortune that's being sunk into a project he's not sure will attract sponsors.
Once the taping commences, Frost finds himself stymied by Nixon's meandering solipsism and double-talk. But the 37th president's self-destructive streak -- one of the things that, oddly enough, makes him less monstrous, more accessible -- radically alters the televised tug of war. Not to give too much away, but a drunken telephone call one night by Nixon to Frost reveals these ambitious, self-made men might have more in common than a love of cheeseburgers.
This Donmar Warehouse production, directed with crackling intensity by Michael Grandage, re-creates for American audiences the London sensation of last year. For those unable to get to New York, a bit of consolation: Ron Howard is slated to direct the movie adaptation.
The set -- sleekly designed by Christopher Oram, who also did the nattily retro costumes -- serves as Frost's TV studio, complete with a bank of 36 televisions that both hypnotizes us with images and forces us to ponder the way in which they falsify reality.
But let me make one thing perfectly clear: "Frost/Nixon" is competently crafted rather than flawlessly imagined. It's an impressively complex character study that's superlatively enacted by the leads. Don't expect a neo-Shakespearean history play.