On the face of it, a play about David Frost and Richard Nixon would appear to be as unlikely a subject as one could imagine. Nixon, the discredited president, died some years ago and Frost, the British television interviewer is well past his prime. This, however, would be to reckon without an astute dramatist and a first-rate production, such as found in Frost/Nixon, a play that began at the Donmar Warehouse and is now at the Gielgud Theatre.
The historical basis for the play was a series of television interviews in California in 1977. One might wonder why Nixon would agree to such a thing. One reason, apparently, was money: a fee of $1 million. Another was a futile hope on Nixon's part that the interviews would in some way rehabilitate him. Frost, at the same time, was a low point in his own career.
Playwright Peter Morgan has given each man a support team, one member of which serves as a narrator or chorus. On Frost's side, it is Jim Reston (Elliot Cowan), a fiery liberal who feels Nixon should be nailed to the mast. On Nixon's side, it is Jack Brennan (Corey Johnson), his ram-rod straight military chief of staff. There are to be 28 hours of interviews, edited down to a few hours.
After initial negotiations - about finances, topics of discussion, and the like - the interviews begin. Frost, a facile, self-confident interviewer, is certain he can skewer Nixon in short order. For a number of sessions, however, he is foiled at every turn by Nixon's protracted, self-serving pronouncements. Frost and his team become increasingly despondent. Not only are they headed toward a TV disaster, Frost is destined to lose a personal fortune.
At the last minute, in the best dramatic tradition, a reversal occurs. On the night just before the final taping, a drunken Nixon calls Frost on the phone. There follows a lengthy peroration in which Nixon explains how much alike the two men are: both from the lower middle-class, striving ceaselessly to impress the Establishment (Cambridge and Oxford in the UK; Ivy League types in the US). The following morning, Nixon has no recollection of the conversation.
Meanwhile, Reston has found documents, overlooked before, that prove Nixon knew of the Watergate break-in days before he had previously admitted. In the final interview, Frost turns the tables on Nixon, who finally acknowledges, as he never had before, that he had done wrong and let the American people down.
Two things are of inestimable help. One, the performances, especially Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost. The imperious Langella walks with a stoop and speaks with a rumbling voice that approximates Nixon without imitating him. Sheen, by contrast, bounces about the stage, clearly out his depth, but brimming with self- confidence. They, as well as the rest of the cast, benefit from the brisk, focused direction of Michael Grandage. The second asset is the canny script of playwright Peter Morgan, who moves the action in and out of the interviews with consummate skill and keeps the play moving inexorably to its conclusion.
Ironies abound. Michael Sheen, for example, previously played Tony Blair in the film of The Queen, and by coincidence, the real David Frost recently confronted the real Tony Blair on TV in an interview in which Blair made admissions he had not made before. (A further coincidence: playwright Morgan was the screen writer for The Queen.) Then, of course, there are the parallels between Nixon's Vietnam War and the Iraq War now. All in all, an entertaining drama on its own terms, along with all those thematic echoes and overtones.