REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Frost/Nixon is Peter Morgan’s award-winning play about the televised 1977 interviews between British talk show host David Frost and deposed president Richard M. Nixon. The interviews were divided into four segments, each focusing on a different topic. The original broadcast of the first segment drew 45 million viewers. What most people were looking for, including Frost, was an admission of guilt, a show of remorse, and some sign of contrition from the former president for the Watergate scandal that brought down his administration in 1974.
High Street Arts Center’s production of Morgan’s play is structured like a heavyweight fight, a disciplined, often riveting battle of wits, as Frost and Nixon, with the assistance of their respective “seconds” in their respective corners, size each other up, throw haymakers, and exploit weaknesses. In the end, only one of the two could emerge victorious – the other, as is stated by Nixon during the play, will be exiled to “a wilderness” of isolation.
As Nixon, Ray Mastrovito gives the performance of a lifetime with an unforgettable portrayal of the former president. Resisting the impulse to do a caricature of the jowly Nixon, (the “let me make that perfectly clear” version by comedian impressionist David Frye), Mastrovito reveals Nixon to be an intelligent, cagey, and combative adversary. R. Shane Bingham plays the erudite, celebrity-craving Frost with great sensitivity and gravitas. Both Frost and Nixon underestimate each other at the outset of the talks; Frost thinking he will be able to control the proceedings, and Nixon gauging Frost as a lightweight who he will be able to manipulate to his own advantage. In the first several segments of the interview, Nixon clearly controls the agenda, but does nothing to rejuvenate his shattered image. It is only in the last interview that Frost gains the upper hand by stunning Nixon with an opening blow, asking him pointblank, “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?” Nixon goes on the defensive, at one point delivering the coup d’etat to his own demise: “If the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.” Nixon ultimately cracks and concludes the interview with his sorrowful admission of guilt, declaring that he “let the American people down.”
The show begins with a video retrospective of the real Nixon’s life, concluding with his famously tearful farewell speech to his staff after his resignation, in which he advises his staff to “never be petty,” an irony, since the pettiness of Nixon’s famous paranoia helped lead to his own destruction through his coverup of the Watergate break-in of 1972. Both Frost and Nixon are on the skids in their respective worlds; Frost’s popularity had dimmed in recent years while Nixon missed being in the political limelight that had dominated his public life since the late 1940s. Each needed a knockout punch to revive their respective careers.
Mastrovito is outstanding in exhibiting a side of Richard Nixon the public never saw: the congenial, affable Nixon, able to converse casually, make small talk, and crack jokes. At the outset, Frost’s conviviality vanishes and he is overwhelmed by his opponent, despite asserting to his handlers that he would be confrontational with the former president. Nixon wins the first two rounds by playing rope-a-dope, spinning long-winded, rambling yarns and going on tangents to drag out the interviews without revealing any damning evidence of wrongdoing.
Director Colin Fluxman has masterfully chiseled the features of the two combatants much as a sculptor creates a statue. The speech patterns were carefully ascribed to each – Mastrovito with Nixon’s distinctive intonation and body language and Bingham re-creating Frost’s sophisticated British accent. Visually, Mastrovito’s make-up gives him an astonishingly Nixonian presence, which helps him completely disappear into the role. He is so good, in fact, that one wonders if, after the four-week run of the play concludes, whether he can even resume being Ray Mastrovito again.
In the most extraordinary scene in the play, an inebriated Nixon surprises Frost with a 3 a.m. phone call prior to their final interview on the subject of Watergate. The staging features Nixon on an upper level, sitting in a chair, bathed in dark blue light, extinguishing his facial features, with a shocked Frost on the opposite side of the stage beneath him, paralyzed as Nixon rambles on about his humble origins and tells Frost how much alike the two of them are in their quest to return to the limelight. (In reality, this phone call never happened, yet it remains the most powerful moment of the play.) In the final scene, we see a projected image of Mastrovito morph into one of the real Nixon, a disquieting and potent conclusion to the show.
In supporting roles, David Colville is excellent as historian James Reston Jr., who helped prepare Frost for the showdown. Reston serves as the narrator of the story, but when Colville steps into character as Reston, he reveals a man unable to control his temper and rage as he sees Nixon taking advantage of Frost’s tentative behavior. The always dependable David Parmenter plays ABC correspondent Bob Zelnick, a former university professor who also works with Frost. In opposition to Reston, Zelnick is more composed but no less alarmed when Nixon takes control of the first three interviews.
Caroline Smith is wonderful as Caroline Cushing, a British socialite who Frost picks up while on a flight to the U.S., expansively inviting her to meet Nixon at the former president’s enclave in San Clemente, California. David Butcher is solid as Jack Brennan, Nixon’s post-resignation chief of staff, a former Marine Corps Reserve officer who advised Nixon during the course of the interviews. Roger Krevenas plays expansive talent agent and dealmaker Swifty Lazar, who negotiated the financial details of the interviews.
Frost/Nixon is an amazing piece of theater, an examination of an extremely flawed man whose own personality faults led to the downfall of not only his presidency, but the concept behind American politics itself. The Watergate scandal and its aftermath destroyed the confidence Americans felt for its governmental representatives. Today, many cynically view politicians not as statesmen, but pragmatic opportunists with a price tag and ulterior motives. With the recent revelations that Richard Nixon actually committed treasonous offenses by deliberately and diabolically sabotaging the Paris peace talks during the Vietnam War while a private citizen, Frost/Nixon shows Richard Nixon’s life to be even more of a Shakespearean tragedy, an episode of history that will resonate for generations to come in the annals of American politics.
Frost/Nixon plays through May 3 at the High Street Arts Center in Moorpark. For dates and showtimes, visit the VC On Stage Calendar.