Spot on

Good Theater’s top-notch Frost/Nixon
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  November 4, 2009

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THE MAN, ALIVE Tony Reilly as Richard Nixon. Photo: CRAIG ROBINSON

After Watergate and an opened China, Nixon’s next most recognized legacy is probably the warning to make sure you know your medium: His infamously sweaty, maladroit television appearance in the Kennedy-Nixon debate was widely perceived to have cost him that year’s presidency. Nixon just hadn’t grokked TV, and it haunted him even after his own election. But in 1974, resigned, disgraced, and exiled in California, he receives an invitation from a guy who has TV down pat.

British talk-show host David Frost is also in a sort of exile, career-wise, and he’s hoping that a series of hard-hitting interviews with Nixon will re-launch his credibility. The former president has his own agenda for these interviews, naturally, and the classical battle of wills that ensues is the story Peter Morgan’s Tony-nominated drama Frost/Nixon. The Good Theater’s tour de force production, tautly directed by Brian P. Allen, features a virtuoso cast and a stunning performance by Tony Reilly as the fallen president.

Nixon and Frost are worthy adversaries, but it’s hard to imagine men more diametrically opposed in appearance and personality. Reilly undergoes a jaw-dropping physical transformation in the hands of hair and make-up people, and is guttural, rough, and heavy on his feet. In contrast, the bird-like, dulcet Jon Robert Stafford is pitch-perfect as the man who creates television confections as light and feathery as his hair.

Frost hopes that dealing with Nixon will be another matter entirely. As he heckles over terms with Nixon, he assembles a team to assist him: Frost’s friend and fellow Brit John Birt (Paul Haley), along with lefty Americans Bob Zelnick (Brent Askari) and Jim Reston (Craig Bowden). All are perfectly cast, and the characters of the slender, graceful Stafford and Haley strike a marvelous contrast to the blunter and less refined Americans. As Reston, author of four books excoriating Nixon, Bowden (who in brown corduroy and floppy hair looks perfect) has a monotone and scowl that suit the writer’s resigned cynicism, and Askari gives Zelnick great energy and acuity.

Leading the opposing team’s back-up is Jack Rennan, Nixon’s chief of staff and true-believer, whom a buzz-cut Mike Kimball gives a broad military gait and the force of unwavering conviction. Helping heckle over terms and dollar amounts is the canny agent Swifty Lazaar (Bob McCormack, in a great character performance), and Seth Berner plays his manservant Manolo. Two other actors, Janis Greim and April Singley, do fine and convincing work in a number of supporting roles.

And Reilly is simply a marvel — the Nixon of his rich and complex portrait is funny and poignant, infuriating and sad. He has scene after scene of priceless material and delivery: Nixon’s wistful rambling about his dead father’s fruit orchard: “It was the poorest lemon ranch in California.” Nixon in a white tux, sweating and fumbling his cue cards as he tells a dentists’ banquet about awkward dinner moments with Chairman and Mrs. Mao. Nixon’s joking but painful allusions to his humiliations in the Kennedy-Nixon debate, as he requests breaks to swab his brow and upper lip. Most affecting is his own half-shamed self-awareness: Even as he teases Frost about the Brit’s fair hair and eyebrows that never need trimming, his jocular derision is really for himself.

Reilly commands all attention during his interview sessions, even as his Nixon evades Frost’s questions and outrages Team Frost, who watch from the sidelines as if in the spill of the sound-stage lights. And as Nixon builds to his and the play’s climax — the infamous avowal that “when the President of the United States does something, it’s not illegal” — nobody even breathes. In the magnificent aftermath, we see Nixon seeing himself: A heavy who knows both his own weight, and the inexorable momentum of its fall.

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