Seen on Broadway: Inherit the Wind, now in revival, is a classic example of “faction”—historical fact mingled with fiction, to give it the textbook truth a little dramatic oomph. The current master of the form, with four credits in the genre in just the last year, is British writer Peter Morgan. Like Inherit the Wind, all of his pieces—The Queen and The Last King of Scotland at the movies, Longford on HBO, and Frost/Nixon, now at the Bernard B. Jacobs after a run at London’s Donmar Warehouse—are basically two-handers, with award-level star turns buttressed by a few supporting characters who add some exposition or get another fleeting point-of-view in. Frost/Nixon, the thinnest of the lot but still absorbing, is basically The Queen in male drag. Here, another haughty “royal,” in this case former president Richard Nixon, learns to loosen up and show some emotion under the tutelage of a savvier, common-touch personality, English prime minister Tony Blair in the film, and TV interviewer David Frost onstage. Reinforcing the continuity, both Blair and Frost are played by Michael Sheen, a resourceful performer who holds his own against Helen Mirren in The Queen and Frank Langella in the show.
At first, I feared for Langella; his hair and makeup, and his hunched stance, have the unfortunate effect of making him look like Silvio, the Steve Van Zandt character, on The Sopranos. But no need. Langella is a consummate stage performer—make that the consummate stage performer—and turning down his natural electricity to play the spectral Nixon he captures the sullen, defeated, bristling essence of the man. From his hollowed physical shell, wracked by illness and resentment, he radiates a bitter humor and sparks of anger. Hoping to bottle some of this lightning for TV is the effervescent Frost, who wants to make it big in America, and sinks a sizable chunk of his own fortune into an exclusive multi-part interview with Nixon, his first since leaving the capitol in disgrace three years early. I remember watching some of the program in 1977, and the reenactments match my recollection—it was pretty dull going at first, as Nixon outmaneuvered Frost with his cannily rambling answers. Frost/Nixon would have us believe that Frost’s advisors, notably the play’s staunchly, starchy liberal narrator, Jim Reston (Stephen Kunken, okay in a bum role), got the contentedly slick and shallow Frost to be more confrontational as the taping sessions wore on. I could almost buy that, except that the engaging Frost was surely less of a dumb bunny than the show makes him out to be (you don’t get as far as he got, even on American TV, without some smarts). But the notion that a drunken Nixon would call Frost at his hotel for a pivotal post-taping chat that levels the playing field between them and makes his famed apology for his misdeeds possible is a little rich, and a little convenient, even for historical drama. Without it, though, there would probably be no play—and less of an opportunity for Langella to throw a haymaker at the audience, which all but gave him a standing ovation at the close of what becomes a completely riveting monologue. This is what faction is all about.
It was also one of the few times at that point in the show, smartly paced by director Michael Grandage, that I watching him, and not his video image. Christopher Oram’s set design is on the simple side, with 70’s-era chairs in front of a tasteful pine backdrop (his costumes, particularly for Frost, are less elegant but it was the style-challenged Seventies, after all). The set is backed, however, by 36 TV monitors, imposingly arrayed in six rows. These are used, History Boys-style, for transitions between locations in the intermissionless show; they then go live to “broadcast” the interview segments. Though I wasn’t far from the stage I found myself glued to the monitors, as if I were seated at Madison Square Garden for a rock concert, looking first at the actors in their individual closeups, than opposite one another onstage. Given the content it’s an appropriate embellishment, but also an overwhelming one, clearly designed to make the show feel bigger than it is yet doing the intimate work of spectatorship for us. Neil Austin’s lighting design edits the scenes with quick blackouts, and Adam Cork’s sound design and original compositions give the production some of the ominous quality of All the President’s Men. (Rocket Scenery handled the set; PRG the lighting, Sound Associates the audio, and XL Video the video equipment). If these choices seem more geared to cinema than theater, know that Frost/Nixon is destined to join Morgan’s other recent works on the screen once the stage engagement has ended.—Robert Cashill