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Douglas Landin and Chris Caswell in Frost/Nixon.

 

There’s no doubt about it: Part of the reason you want to see Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon (now onstage at Venice Theatre’s Stage II) is to see how the actor playing President Richard M. Nixon presents such a well-known and often-mocked figure.

If you’re old enough, you may remember Nixon not only as president, but in earlier parts of his career, as vice president, failed candidate for president in 1960 and so on. “Tricky Dick”—a sobriquet he must have hated—had a lot of political lives in his career. And his persona as he aged became increasingly caricaturish, with a hunched, uncomfortable physical posture, an awkward laugh at his own bad jokes, and a jowly look that added to his unprepossessing image. It could be easy to go over the top with a portrayal of him.

In the Morgan play, the focus is on the famous interviews by broadcaster David Frost with the by-then former commander-in chief, in the year 1977. The play begins with Nixon’s resignation speech, delivered as aides and cameramen watch, and it’s a window into what to expect from Chris Caswell’s performance. The audience is ready to laugh a bit at Nixon’s discomfort with himself and others, as he makes inappropriate attempts at humor, and yet there’s room to see that later on we might not be laughing.

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Allan Kollar and Caswell

 

The British Frost (played here by Douglas Landin) was, of course, considered at the time a sort of lightweight television host better known for interviewing and partying with celebs than for any journalistic abilities. That’s why when he decides to try to interview Nixon (in a feat of checkbook journalism), largely with a motivation to find the success in America that has so far eluded him, he enlists producer John Birt (Ray Burroughs) along with American newsmen Bob Zelnick (William Czarniak) and Jim Reston (Gregory Wollaston). He knows he’ll need all the help he can get to take on wily trial lawyer Nixon for hours of interviews—especially when it comes to the subject of Watergate.

The first half of Frost/Nixon sets us up for those interviews, although without giving us too much of a sense of the stakes here. By Act II, however, as the taping commences and Frost and Nixon face off, the tension rises, both on camera and behind the scenes, as the Brits and Americans argue over strategy and Nixon’s chief of staff, Jack Brennan (Allan Kollar, who adds some juice to the proceedings), acts as his man’s boxing coach in this crucial fight.

So it’s really the interviews themselves, as they build toward the now seemingly inevitable (but at the time unlikely) conclusion of Frost getting Nixon to accept his role in the Watergate cover-up, that grab us. That and a phone call between the two (Did it really happen? Who knows?) the night before the final big day, when we glimpse the driven men behind the public personas.

While performances by the supporting cast vary here, sometimes feeling forced or inauthentic, what matters most is the chemistry between Caswell and Landin. And as the evening wears on, that succeeds (under the direction of Peter Ivanov) in taking us back to that time when a nation was riveted to their TV screens to watch Nixon’s political demise. Then as now, as Morgan’s play emphasizes, politics and show biz were sometimes the same thing.

Frost/Nixon continues through Feb. 11; for tickets call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com.

 

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