Saturday, April 18, 2009

“Frost/Nixon,” showcase for Stacy Keach

Alan Cox as David Frost and Stacy Keach as Richard Nixon
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Though the Broadway production was nominated for a Tony Award in 2007, the traveling company version of “Frost/Nixon,” sponsored here by California Stage, is something of a letdown except for a bravura performance by Stacy Keach as Richard Nixon. Part of the problem has to do with the gigantic Community Center Theater.

The stage is ideal for lavish musicals offering spectacular sets and big sound. But “Frost/Nixon” calls for an intimate space for the famous interview. The spare set consists mainly of a latticed projection screen hanging above the stage, plus a couple of armchairs. The current cast of 13 (including ensemble), and some supporting actors in multiple roles, makes it sometimes hard to recognize who’s who, and to hear some lines, even when you occupy choice orchestra seats.

Peter Morgan’s script is based loosely on a 1977 set of four televised interviews of a retired and disgraced Richard Nixon, the only American president ever to resign from office. Nixon (Keach) was hard-pressed for money and accepted an offer of $600,000 from David Frost (Alan Cox), an English television personality trying to resurrect his own faltering career.

The agreement stipulated that only a fourth of the interview time would be devoted to the Watergate scandal, which brought down Nixon’s presidency. “Watergate” became short for the burglary of The Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972 by five of Nixon’s staff. It led up to a call for Nixon’s impeachment.

Though the interviews actually took place, Morgan’s story is only loosely based on the facts. For plot purposes, for instance, the interviews take the form of a battle between Nixon, trying to resurrect his good name, and Frost, aiming to cut him down. It even includes an imaginary midnight telephone call from Nixon to Frost. Through most of the interviews Nixon adroitly fends off Frost’s innuendoes.

At last, armed with information about a conversation between Nixon and Charles Colson, a Nixon aide, Frost finally puts his prey on the defensive. Unfortunately, the account of that critical interview has no basis in fact. There are also other flat contradictions between fact and fancy. As writer Elizabeth Drew points out, the play has Nixon admitting that he was involved in the Watergate “cover up.” What Nixon actually said was “You're wanting me to say that I participated in an illegal cover-up. No!”

Morgan could have avoided the clash between fact and fiction by writing a play about an imaginary president driven from office, then allowing the audience to recognize the parallel with Nixon. This would also have allowed the playwright to reduce the number of minor characters and develop them more distinctively.

In fairness we must note that we encountered some sophisticated theatergoers who expressed unequivical enthusiasm for the current production. Just why, though, eludes our understanding.
One final note: “Frost/Nixon” is a full-length play that runs without intermission. Be prepared.

“Frost/Nixon” continues through April 26 at Sacramento’s Community Center Theatre, 1301 L Street. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday, with matinees on Thursday and Saturday at 2 p.m. Sunday matinee begins at 2 p.m. on April 19 and 1 p.m. on April 26. On April 19 an additional performance will take place at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $16.50 to $61.50. Special bargain tickets at $25 were recently announced. Tickets are available at the Community Center Theater box office and the Well Fargo Pavilion box office, 1419 H Street. They are also available at or at (916) 808-5181 or (808) 225-2277. For group orders (12 or more) call (916) 557-1198.

1 comment:

Allen said...

Hi David,

As you know I very much disagree with your review. I thought the staging was brilliant and the entire production moved at such an excellent pace that I could not believe two hours without an intermission had passed. Taking liberties with the historical facts for dramatic impact did not bother me. It was done well. I think the 3 1/2 star review by Marcus in the Sac Bee is more in line with my feelings about the show and with those who I have spoken to. It was an enthralling production. But differences in opinion are what make the world go around, or wait is that love that does so?

--Allen Schmeltz