A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Frost/Nixon at the Donmar Theatre was an engrossing drama about the real-life television interviews in 1997 between talk-show host David Frost and ex-president Richard Nixon. Author Peter Morgan dramatically captured the build-up to the interviews, when each of the opponents, anxious to restore his earlier prominence, sparred until a climactic win for Frost.

At the time, as brilliantly depicted by Michael Sheen, David Frost was a young, light-weight playboy and bon viveur who was in a downward spiral after shooting to the peaks of television on three continents. Frank Langella gives a stunning performance as Richard Nixon, who had been forced to resign after the Watergate scandals and who was anxious to improve a reputation that had plummeted once the White-House tapes were made public. Mr. Langella brings such real depth to the character that you even begin to sympathize with one of history’s villains.

When the interviews are conducted, a vast tv monitor mounted above depicts the onstage action, at first in long-shot perspective of the two men in easy chairs, facing each other. Before the interviews, the monitor carries images of the locales, mainly in the U.S. and England, where the two men prepare and gather their teams, including Frost’s British producer John Birt and American academic James Reston, and Nixon’s former White House chief-of-staff, General Alexander Haig. But at crucial moments, the screen then reveals agonizing close-ups of each man, the first being Frost when he is interviewed by CBS’s Mike Wallace on the questionable practice of “paid journalism,” that is, paying Nixon $50,000 for the interviews.

Directed by Michael Grandage, artistic director of the Domar, the contrasts between the two men are immediately apparent when they meet for the first time to plan the interviews and hand over the down payment, Frost writing his own check for a greedy Nixon, who grabs it away from his agent. Frost is flashy and impeccably dressed in a Savile Row blazer and Gucci shoes, while Nixon wears a business suit and laced shoes, Haig having advised him that slip-ons were “effeminate.”

While their appearances are in contrast, they share an almost symbiotic relationship, believes Mr. Morgan, who invents a late-night phone call to Frost from a drunken Nixon, who reminds his antagonist that people from humble beginnings, like themselves, must continually strive against maligning enemies who attain their power by birthright. The call serves to deepen the characters of both men, and as Frost listens silently, Michael Sheen skillfully depicts, by movements of face and body, the truth of his opponent’s observations. It is something of a let-down for the audience when neither man is sure that the conversation ever took place.

Frost’s potential sponsorship becomes shaky as the early interviews are increasingly frustrating for him and his team, because Nixon insists on tangentially answering direct questions with anecdotes that put him in a sympathetic light. But just before the last interview, Frost obtains incriminating evidence uncovered by James Reston (to paraphrase Stoppard’s “Jumpers,” not the New York Times James Reston). And Frost’s whole demeanor changes in that final meeting; no longer laid back but sitting on the edge of his easy chair, pointing a finger directly at Nixon, the interviewer moves in for the kill. He achieves what no one else had done until that moment: Nixon’s confession of guilt, and saying, at long last, that he is sorry: “I brought myself down. I gave them the sword. And they stuck it in. And they twisted it with relish. I guess if I had been in their position, I’d have done the same thing…I let down my friends. I let down the country…I let down the American people. And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.”

Here the huge television monitor provides for the audience a close-up of Mr. Langella’s desperate, guilty, self-hating face: brilliant theatre and all the more so because it is true.