LA Review: 'Frost/Nixon'

Staged Cinema Productions at Maverick Theater

Reviewed by Eric Marchese

April 24, 2012


Photo by Brian Newell
Peter Morgan’s 2006 drama pits two unlikely contenders, each with something to gain and considerably more to lose, against each other: former President Richard M. Nixon, disgraced since resigning from office in August 1974, and British TV personality David Frost, who had recently lost both his New York City–based TV show and a cheesy interview series originating from Australia. Frost proposes that Nixon allow himself to be filmed in a series of interviews on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from foreign policy to Vietnam to his personal bugaboo, Watergate, going so far as to offer Nixon a hefty fee—one of the earliest examples of checkbook journalism. The edited footage would then be aired in syndication. Frost sees the project as a coup that could catapult him back into the entertainment-world limelight; Nixon is convinced that he will easily handle a lightweight like Frost and thus be able to bypass the tougher news media and directly address the American people, rehabilitating himself without having to answer to any serious charges. Director Brian Newell seizes upon the aspects of Morgan’s script that best lend themselves to live theater: the one-on-one confrontation that at first seems absurdly one-sided, favoring the crafty Nixon; the jockeying for superiority that suggests a medieval joust, an intellectual chess game, and a brutal boxing match; and the constantly increasing pressure upon both men to deliver in what becomes a nail-biting, high-stakes, winner-take-all poker tournament.

While perhaps not ideal, Newell’s casting of Joe Parrish and David Herbelin as Nixon and Frost pays off in the way each actor sidesteps his role’s many clichés, making the character his own while still projecting those qualities most closely associated with the famous men. Parrish wisely avoids the stoop-shouldered, almost ghoulish caricature of Nixon created by Frank Langella on Broadway and in the 2008 film version, instead projecting an awkward, self-serious, seemingly humble pol in a drab suit who is nonetheless as sly, slick, and shrewd as any seasoned trial lawyer. Herbelin also skirts copying, eschewing Michael Sheen’s stage and screen portrayal of Frost as a graceful pretty boy. Herbelin chooses to be a needy punching bag who morphs into a crisp, elegant British inquisitor intent upon eliciting honest answers without resorting to cheap shots or bullying. Both men stress their characters’ humanity, resulting in a drama that defies you to escape being caught up in what’s at stake.

In a superb supporting cast, Rob Downs shines as Bob Zelnick, the investigative reporter (and later ABC News correspondent) who heads Frost’s team. Equally good are Ben Green, as college professor, author, and journalist James Reston Jr., who intends to exact an on-air apology from Nixon; Mark Coyan, as tough, hard-edged military man Jack Brennan, Nixon’s post–White House chief of staff and top advisor; Robert Dean Nunez, as Frost’s starchy British colleague, producer John Birt; Kelsie Blackwell, as stunning model and new Frost girlfriend Caroline Cushing; and Jason Sutton, as Irving “Swifty” Lazar, Nixon’s cagey literary agent. Newell’s boxing-ring set, TV-studio lighting, large monitors showing both live and recorded images, and canny use of dramatic musical underscoring help propel an already urgent series of events. Lauren Shoemaker (costumes and props) and Sharon Baker (wig stylist) ensure that the cast members look just as their real-life counterparts would have looked during the events that unfolded exactly 35 years ago, in April 1977.

Presented by Staged Cinema Productions at Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Suite B, Fullerton. April 20–May 27. Fri. and Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m. (No performance Fri., April 27.) (714) 526-7070 or www.mavericktheater.com.
 

 
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