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Theater Review

Nixon's shadow

This 'Frost/Nixon' staging gets the moments right, but the president

March 16, 2009|Charlotte Stoudt

Every great age has its Richard. Shakespeare's had the Hunchback King; ours has Tricky Dick. Richard Milhous Nixon, America's anxious daddy as we lurched from Norman Rockwell to rock 'n' roll, is so rich a subject he's become fictional.

Portrayed in film and opera by powerhouse actors such as Anthony Hopkins, Frank Langella and Philip Baker Hall, the bootstrap-Quaker-turned-Machiavellian disturbs our cherished certainties about this country's moral might. Even Stacy Keach, now appearing in the smartly entertaining "Frost/Nixon" at the Ahmanson Theatre, doesn't quite get a hold on this elusive figure.

Peter Morgan's adroit account of David Frost's 1977 interviews with the disgraced former president recently received the big-screen treatment. But this touring production, helmed by the play's original director, Michael Grandage, makes the case that this televised showdown belongs on stage.

"Frost/Nixon" is about two men fighting to control the content of Nixon's close-up -- who can seduce the camera more successfully -- and there is something irreducibly captivating about seeing that contest live. This production won't make you forget why Langella got an Oscar nomination, but it will remind you that theater is a more elegant medium for ideas than film.

Christopher Oram's set is a corridor of power -- a wood-paneled playing space dwarfed by a bank of television screens overhead. Displaying live footage during the interview sequences, the screens convey the irrevocable sense of being on the record. Arrangements of people -- the press, the respective entourages -- become the scenery. "Frost/Nixon" rightly looks like a history play, with Frost (Alan Cox) as a playboy Brutus ready to turn the knife.

Grandage has a fluid sense of storytelling and stage composition. Yet the show can feel squirrelly; a little ingratiating, it sometimes lacks a sense of stakes. Our guide through Morgan's compressed version of events is Jim Reston (Brian Sgambati), a journalist who spent years methodically documenting Nixon's crimes. Here the character comes off a bit breezy, reacting to the man he held accountable for bringing down America as if he were merely a querulous relative. (Only Stephen Rowe, delicious as Swifty Lazar, Nixon's publicist, never puts a foot wrong.) As Frost, Cox drives the evening with bright charm and intelligence, most interesting when he's toughest. He appears to be on good behavior here -- the role keeps him on a tight leash.

Looking more Brezhnev than Nixon, Keach displays power but not mystery. With his frontier jaw and linebacker build, the actor always has brought a natural physical assurance to his roles. Audiences feel comfortable with Keach -- he's accessible. But the event of the play is Getting Nixon; if he's too close to us already, the journey isn't as satisfying. Keach's strength is a veteran's sense of language and timing. He nails Nixon's left-field humor, and when he lets loose in the (invented) telephone call the night before the all-important final interview, you see the Keach who has commanded the stage over four decades. He roars through Morgan's monologue like a star athlete on an obstacle course.

It's a superb setup for the climactic last scene. Own your actions out loud, Frost tells the cornered Nixon, "or you're going to be haunted for the rest of your life." Sitting in the audience, you can feel a hush. We know from history what Nixon will say, yet in the moment we don't believe he'll actually confess. Because we need him to confess. Morgan's sleek play zeros in on that raw, communal moment with startling accuracy.

For all the showbiz aspects of politics -- the glad-handing, the deal-making, the sponsorships -- there remains a primal need for integrity. "Frost/Nixon" doesn't stop to plumb the depths of that truth, but it stages a broken leader's crucible with nimble, ruthless insight.

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'Frost/Nixon'

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Dark March 25 and 26. Ends March 29.

Price: $20 to $100

Contact: (213) 628-2772

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

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