There is less here than meets the eye. That may seem an ironic remark about a drama that at its climactic moment employs a huge video monitor to capture a close-up, but in fact it is this evening’s deficiency in irony that prompts my statement.
That monitor is as much a prime player in the central scenes here as are Frank Langella, the production’s Richard Nixon, and Michael Sheen, its David Frost. The screen sits above the area where the supporting actors, most of them re-cast since the play’s successful run in London, dart about in deference to Nixon or sometimes in defiance of Frost.
The play charts the story of their 1977 television interviews: talk-show journalist Frost had hit a bad career patch and Nixon had been driven from office in August 1974.
As demonstrated in his screenplays for The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, the playwright, Peter Morgan, is clever at building conflict – the difficult path to getting the Nixon interviews on the air, Frost’s bungling of the first three-quarters of the broadcasts – and then dissolving it.
Jim Reston, a producer in the Frost camp played by Stephen Kunken, and Jack Brennan, Nixon’s chief of staff, played by Corey Johnson, have the thankless task of moving the story along with narration before and between their employers’ on-air bouts. The play suffers from modest padding, as does Sheen, who bravely displays some middle-aged abdominal spread.
While Sheen is effective at displaying Frost’s cocktail-party charm and his quiet insecurities, the showy role goes to the actor playing the unshowy Nixon.
Langella’s gorilla-ish ambulation can be jarring, but his superior slouch and hollow baritone are impressively Nixonesque. There are traces of caricature, but Langella knows how to squeeze power from restraint. Tony- award voters may as well hurl the Best Actor statue at him this minute.
But the play, directed by Michael Grandage, gives not even a flicker of new insight into the president who went down with Watergate.