Theatre Review: ‘Frost/Nixon’ at Irish Classical Theatre

Adriano Gatto as David Frost and Jack Hunter as Richard M. Nixon in “Frost/Nixon”. Photo is by Gene Witkowski.

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear:  opening night for Irish Classical Theater’s production of “Frost/Nixon” sold out.

. . .a fascinating story, expertly told, acted, and staged. . .

One bet is there’s some interest in the not so long ago historical subject matter.  And what better venue than ICTC’s in-the-round for a play whose central event is the face-to-face, 1977 post-Watergate interviews of former President Richard Nixon by British talk show host, David Frost.  

But it’s more than that.  As a retelling of history goes, it’s often about perspective.  And what lives on most of the play’s stage are behind the scenes action leading up to, and between, those historic interviews.  We are given the circumstances of Nixon (Jack Hunter) a full three years after his resignation. Nixon and his talent agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar (Ray Boucher) negotiate the terms and conditions of the extensive interviews, not the least of which is the payday Nixon stands to make.

For Frost (Adriano Gatto), whose 1977 circumstance is an easy-going, light on substance talk show host and playboy with a struggling career, the stakes are perhaps even greater.  For Nixon, it was in part about re-establishing his public persona. As a seasoned politician, his belief is that he will handle the playboy Frost with some ease. For Frost, the question is not whether he is up to the challenge, but also about whether the whole thing would leave him broke.

But Frost’s production team of advisors wonders more about the challenge in front of them.  ABC News political journalist Bob Zelnick and political writer James Reston, who narrates the play, confront Frost about their concerns.  They fear Frost will seem the weak interviewer, and too-easily let Nixon skirt around him with political savvy, and let him off the hook for what they believe to be his crimes.   

Jim Reston is played by Adam Yellen, whose duties as both narrator of this story and recurring character come literally from all sides of the ICTC stage, and he appears with fervent activism, anger and, when he comes face to face with Nixon, a comic moment of deference to the former president.  It’s just one reminder that these are human beings and not just historical public figures.

Likewise Gatto comes to play.  He gives Frost’s devil-may-care persona a hint of under-surface doubt, barely noticeable, as the interviews go by.  Frost and Nixon are opponents, and Hunter’s Nixon gets the best of Frost at first. Hunter shines, embellishing his Nixon character with a troubled, sometimes intoxicating passion, as a self-deprecating, self-described political punching bag, vulnerable, tired, yet a still hardass opponent.  Hunter doesn’t sweat the demanding role one bit.

Never are the leads played as caricatures, or as personas, or as what we may think we remember we know about them.  They are played as characters, opponents in a struggle, which becomes even more persuasive through the scenes leading up the final interview on Watergate.

What happens in that interview is the stuff of history.  It can be referenced in media and on the stage as point in fact.  How the players get there, what leads up to it, how it comes to be the way it did come to be, is all the stuff of good theater, a mix of  fictionalized as well as historically accurate storytelling. What the ICTC and director Brian Cavanagh do is pump life into this scarred bit of American history, and, sure, in doing so bring even more appropriate fare if one is given to drawing parallels to today’s political scenery.   Give the ICTC credit if that is even a minor reason for staging “Frost/Nixon.” For if one is given to drawing parallels, these characters of history might make you question whether duping the public’s trust are high crimes, misdemeanors, or forgivable muggings. And whether one commits them as an effect of the conditions heaved upon them, or they are of their own dreadful making.   

A sold out opening night may speak to that kind of aim to understand history in the present as it relates  to the past. But one thing is perfectly clear – it is just as likely that this is a fascinating story, expertly told, acted, and staged that makes it even more worthy, so get a ticket while you can.  The fact that it is based on real history is even more compelling.

Running Time: 2 Hours, including a 15-minute intermission.

“Frost/Nixon” is currently running through March 24.  For more information, click here.