Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

An Early Frost

April 05, 2007

Frank Langella as Richard Nixon
It’s off to New York for the Easter weekend and a truckload of operas. But before we get into that, I took in a preview last night of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon which is about to open after a successful run in London. Cutting to the chase – it’s worth seeing if for no other reason than a great performance from Frank Langella. He captures a lot of Nixon including his sharp wit and inner conflict and it speaks volumes to say how easily one accepts this performance given the stark physical dissimilarities between the actor and the man.

Frost/Nixon recalls events leading up to the 1977 interview David Frost conducted with the former president and how both were looking to achieve success or a comeback at the expense of the other in this process. This is a history play first and foremost, and much of the its action is narrated directly to the audience by supporting characters including Jim Reston, an academic who helped Frost prepare for the interview, and Jack Brennan, Nixon’s Chief of Staff. It is reminiscent in many ways of David Hare’s recent Stuff Happens although this piece is admittedly more of a character study of two men engaged in a struggle than just a speculative retelling of history. One important similarity is that Morgan and director Michael Grandage try to maintain the kind of rapid-fire pacing that made Stuff work so well. The staging involves a large wall of TV monitors used to project images related to scene transitions and also carries a live feed of Langella and Sheen during their scenes reenacting the actual interview.

Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon
Often funny and ultimately very moving and relevant, Frost/Nixon has several great moments. And in some ways, it reminds us why history plays are important. It’s easy to forget why the country was so angry about Nixon 30 years ago especially in the midst of his current ongoing legacy rehabilitation. However, it becomes painfully evident how many parallels exist between now and then and how easily one forgets the very past we ourselves have lived through. Revisiting Nixon’s arguments about how it’s sometimes OK for the president to do illegal things if they serve the national interest is shocking because we have to remember why this was upsetting in the first place – how could this have been forgotten at all to begin with?

The play is far from perfect however. It drags in the middle which makes for a long intermissionless 115 minutes. This is Morgan’s first play, but he was responsible for the screenplays for both The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. Given this track record, it is no surprise he was interested in the character traits and stucture of major historical figures of the last part of the 20th century and how that has influenced their behavior under times of stress. Like both of these films, he seems less interested in telling us something new about the events they describe but want to reflect more on the character structure of the major players. Given this, the performances of Michael Sheen (who played Tony Blair in The Queen) and Frank Langella are so important. They are the heart and soul of this play. Langella, in particular, is great, and his performance is not to be missed. Go see it.

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