Broadway Features and Reviews
A Surprising History Lesson
The Comeback Kids? In Broadway's Frost/Nixon one does and one doesn't.
By David Greenberg, Broadway Magazine
Editor's Note: After a successful turn on Broadway Frank Langella and Michael Sheen immediately went to shoot the film version of Frost/Nixon for Ron Howard. In anticipation of the release of that film, here is historian David Greenberg (Nixon's Shadow) consideration of the Broadway production and the historical event it depicts.
In 1983, Paul Berman, writing in the Village Voice, called Richard Nixon “the richest, most promising character the American theater has ever seen.” Recalling the scores of Nixons that had, even then, already appeared on stage and screen, Berman noted, “His personality descends to almost oceanic depth, plunging from bright intelligence through piety, vulgarity, maudlinity and paranoia to the murky floor of violent criminality. His quivering cheeks and humped back are an actor’s dream.”
Some years later, Daniel Aaron offered a different view. In the journal Raritan, Aaron observed, “Writers for the most part have used him [Nixon] as a whipping boy rather than as an object for contemplation. …[Their] clever exercises in political denigration haven’t weathered well because the topical allusions once so devastatingly apt are largely lost on today’s readers, and because they weren't all that funny to begin with.”
Now “Frost/Nixon” has come to Broadway from London to much fanfare. It presents an opportunity to see if time’s passage has brought us closer to realizing in mimetic form the dramatically complex Nixon that both Berman and Aaron relished.
Written by Peter Morgan, “Frost/Nixon” tells the story of how, in 1977, the British talk-show host David Frost, considered a lightweight (and a washed-up one at that), nabbed the first interviews with Nixon after his resignation and how the two men, both seeking rehabilitation, jousted before and during their series of televised parleys. Frost wanted to gain respectability by exacting an admission of guilt from the unrepentant president. Nixon, convinced the news media had railroaded him, craved a prime-time forum to tell his version of things—a version that would downplay Watergate and stress his foreign policy.
The premise, therefore, is great—at least for hardcore Nixonologists. Yet “Frost/Nixon” begins inauspiciously. “Frost/Nixon” puts Frank Langella through the paces of a full-on impersonation—replete with gravelly voice, jowls, and even an exaggerated hunch. The choice suggests we’re in for broad comedy, not psychological drama.
But “Frost/Nixon” quickly comes alive. It leaves the realm of the familiar as it shifts to the characters of Frost and James Reston Jr.—the latter a journalist, son of the great New York Times columnist, and research assistant to Frost on the Nixon interviews. Morgan’s Frost, played by Michael Sheen, is the best kind of fictional hero—a highly unappealing one. Frost’s vanity, superficiality, and bad 1970s tummy-hugging shirts are on full display. He preens, bluffs his way into his meeting with Nixon, and cloyingly sidles up to a leggy passenger on his flight to L.A. But he also develops during the play, discovering that he has deeper motives for wanting to spar with Nixon than careerism.
Once the interview tapings begin, Langella’s portrayal deepens and tension builds. For Nixon, the series of four face-offs serves as a repetition of his four debates with John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential contest: again, he is squaring off mano-a-mano against a fair-haired rival who is better looking, more popular, more sexually accomplished. But if Nixon is reliving the “Great Debates,” this time he means to win. He’s even put it in the contract that he can stop the filming and dab his sweaty lip or apply new makeup as needed.
At first, Nixon seems headed for victory. He artfully parries Frost’s questions. But as anyone acquainted with the actual interviews knows, Frost ultimately prevails.
Frost pulls it off, thanks to an aspect of his own superficiality: his grasp of television’s power. Although Frost never actually gets Nixon to apologize, he comes close; and more important, he elicits from Nixon a series of pained, remorseful facial expressions—portrayed beautifully by Langella, and magnified for the theater audience via a mammoth TV screen—that speak volumes. “The power of the close-up,” marvels Reston (Stephen Kunken), with both disillusionment and satisfaction. “The first and greatest sin of television is that it simplifies … Tranches of time, whole careers, become reduced to a single snapshot.” Television—Nixon’s friend so often in his career, from the 1952 Checkers speech to his 1972 trip to China—this time did him in. It was 1960 all over again.
That Morgan grasps Nixon’s place in American culture is confirmed near the play’s end, when Reston endorses an opinion that one seldom hears in journalistic commentary but that I believe is undoubtedly true: Nixon was never rehabilitated. He never came back. Despite the pomp and fine words at his funeral, his name remained a synonym for presidential corruption and crime, and the “-gate” suffix affixed to names of scandals ever since certified Watergate’s cultural importance—as Reston reminds the audience in a kind of peroration.
Indeed, as late as 1990, after Nixon had published another memoir, his third, he sighed to his research assistant: “None of the other stuff in there, like on the Russians or the other personal stuff, made it into the news or even the reviews. Watergate—that’s all anyone wants.”
Historian David Greenberg is the author of "Nixon's Shadow". Reprinted for Broadway Magazine with the author's permission.