Strawberry Theatre Workshop
Through February 17, 2018
One of the most famous quotes of all time is ex-President Nixon's, "when the President does it that means that it's not illegal." That ridiculous statement, which Nixon took back almost immediately, echoes in the attempts of the current administration to shield its occupant.
Frost/Nixon, a play by Peter Morgan which was the basis for the movie of the same name, is being mounted by Strawberry Theatre Workshop with an all-female cast! Stalwart veterans Amy Thone (Nixon) and Alexandra Tavares (Frost) go toe to toe in a fascinating portrayal.
The play brings to the stage a historic moment in television, when David Frost, noted talk show host, and Richard Nixon, ex-President, having resigned in disgrace, sat down together in 1977 for a television interview series retrospectively examining Nixon's presidency. Morgan's play suggests that this seminal interview series might never have happened if financing and advertisers passed on participation.
The tension in the play resides in two places: will the show actually happen – a non-tension, since we know it did; will Frost win the struggle with Nixon to "get" Nixon to admit culpability in the Watergate scandal and apologize. This tension is also a known quantity, since Nixon was led to finally make that historic declaration. But on stage, the theatrical quality of that struggle between the two men becomes an epic emotional battle. Creating that tension on a living stage has arguably more impact to an audience than watching a film, no matter how tautly directed. The energy released by the actors can be felt, rather than just watched.
That imbalance of power is what most of the play is about. We see Frost, depressed at losing his American audiences, limited "only" to British and Australian television, wanting to do something big to regain the notice of the American television networks. His idea is to get an interview with Nixon, hoping Nixon is hungry to rehabilitate his reputation. While the idea gets no traction in 1974, it gains in subsequent years while Nixon sits in isolation. Nixon's people think Frost will lob "softballs" and be an easy interview to manage. Frost thinks that he might be able to pull off the ultimate coup and get admissions from Nixon that no others have yet managed to elicit.
The play allows for both to be right. Frost does lob softballs, though he tries to ask the "tough" questions. Nixon is wily enough to manage them. Nixon's people are elated, Frost's are devastated. There is a supporting cast here, all solid actors, though totally eclipsed by the focus on these two.
The play is performed here as an hour-three-quarters without intermission. It may be to heighten tension, but it likely could work just fine with an intermission, too. Director Greg Carter informed me that the playwright stipulated that there be no intermission.
A weakness of the script is the narration by James Reston, a noted Nixon author and analyzer (played by Sarah Harlett), used as a character to propel the action forward. Harlett almost brings off the character with her talent, but monologues from Reston restate things that are so obvious that they are unneeded. Monologues similar to, "Nixon's people are elated, Frost's are devastated."
A fascinating fictionalized moment occurs near the end, when a supposedly drunk Nixon calls Frost on the phone and philosophizes that both of them came from "common" stock and both know the struggle to scrape themselves up the ladder of success. This aspect of the play is its most successful moment. Especially so when it seems to propel Frost to change his tactics and gain the upper hand and ultimately those incredible admissions from Nixon.
The talent onstage, including Ina Chang, Amy Fleetwood, Meme Garcia, Anastasia Higham, Mayme O’Toole and Rhonda J. Soikowski, make this a must-see production. K.D. Shill’s costuming fits these “men” beautifully and the video-screen heavy set by Catherine Cornell, lights by Reed Nakayama, and sound by Brendan Patrick Hogan bring it all seamlessly together.