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.

First Look: ‘Frost/Nixon’ at Irish Classical Theatre

His party was trying to re-elect him as President. Then there was a break in. A secret informant. Lies. The power of the press. A landmark resignation.

A work of fine fiction? No. Welcome to the United States of America, circa 1972-74, when the Committee to Re-elect the President orchestrated the break in of the Democratic National Committee office and kicked off the Watergate scandal. Two Washington Post reporters broke the news to an incredulous country still healing over its involvement in the Vietnam war. President Richard M. Nixon declared that he wasn’t at fault, yet he resigned and withdrew from public life for a couple years. It took a British talk show host (and a checkbook) to put him in front of the TV cameras again to clear the air. Or did he?

This is the story behind Frost/Nixon, presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company on stage at The Andrews Theatre March 1 to 24.

It’s a production that was a couple years in the making. “I proposed this to ICTC two years ago,” says director Brian Cavanagh. “It’s very relevant to the world we live in today.”

The story is based on the series of interviews that David Frost did with former U.S. President Richard Nixon three years after President Nixon resigned and – not ironically – in advance of the release of Nixon’s autobiography. Playwright Peter Morgan did significant research on these four  interviews that were aired in syndication on TV and also on radio, and while he took some liberties to condense four hours of programming into a two-hour play, Cavanagh says “This history behind the news of it is still there. It’s a play, it’s not a documentary, and the author is making a statement.”

Authenticity is important. Cavanagh says, “A good portion of the audience will have lived through these years, including the actor playing Nixon. There’s a whole new audience that doesn’t know a lot about Nixon or Watergate, but what is happening in our country now is a mirror.”

The need for authenticity transcends the script, too: “It’s all the in the casting, “ Cavanagh says. “Nixon – we know his face immediately. I felt I needed to find someone who could portray Nixon and give him his due. And Frost has a quirky accent.”

To fill these important roles, Cavanagh cast Jack Hunter as Nixon and Adriano Gatto as Frost. “They are both excited to play these roles. They have the talent, looks, and attitude.” Cavanagh and his cast watched the actual interviews so – particularly – the leads could see the posture and gestures of the men they’re portraying. He also made plenty of reading recommendations about the final days of Nixon’s presidency and the Watergate scandal in general. Re-reading history and seeing the men in the interview element are fine points that will help the leads get closer to their portrayals. “We’ve been sharing a lot of information about these men, Cavanagh says.

Frost hired a team of experts to help him prepare to interview a fallen American president. Similarly, Cavanagh cast a stellar supporting cast. In the role of Lord John Birt, the BBC manager and the producer of actual interviews, Cavanagh cast David Lundy. Birt is not well-known to the American public, but he was a high-profile British broadcaster who had a background in engineering. Lundy will bring the methodical, organized temperament of an engineer to his portrayal. He says these subtle nuances are important when portraying a historical figure. Lundy says, “The folks who see the play won’t say ‘hey I bet that guy is an engineer!’, but they will see something different from what another actor who pays no attention to that does.”

Peter Palmisano was cast as Nixon’s former chief of staff Jack Brennon who, with others on Team Nixon, saw the interview as an opportunity to rebuild his statesman image with the American public. Palmisano was drawn to the role because he remembers this era in American political history so well.  Part of his preparation will include learning more about Brennon’s appearance and patterns of speech. While he’s careful not to impersonate the man, this baseline knowledge helps ground his performance. “I find it an important challenge to portray these real people as just that: real.” The audience takeaway, though, is in the script. He says, “For me the creativity in this ‘art’ comes from the creation of a character from the words in the script. You take what the playwright gives you and goes from there. In a well written play, everything you need is in the words.”

Rounding out the cast are Adam Yellen as Jim Reston, Frost’s Watergate advisor, Matt Witten as news producer Bob Zelnick, Renee Landrigan as British socialite Caroline Cushing, Ray Voucher as publicist Swifty Lazar, and Jamie O’Neill as the technician.

Frost/Nixon runs from March 1-24. Visit www.irishclassical.com for tickets and details.