Politicians and the media are natural adversaries. Their jousting is most apparent in confrontational interviews, which can be the stuff of high drama.
Certainly that is the case in “Frost/Nixon,” Peter Morgan’s fact-based fictional account of the televised bouts between British talk show host David Frost and disgraced, but pardoned, former United States president Richard Nixon.
The year was 1977, three years after Nixon became the first chief executive to resign from office, but without an admission of guilt for the “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate office building or an apology to the American people.
Looking for a reboot to his own slipping career, Frost offers Nixon an opportunity for public vindication. After negotiating a tidy price for the interviews, Nixon agrees to four two-hour sessions, with an understanding that only one of the verbal gladiators can emerge victorious.
In a wily production directed by J. Barry Lewis, physically dominated by twelve live television monitors and an oversized thirteenth electronic image that fills the back wall, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre lavishes on the play the same thoughtful care it extends to its musicals. While there are thirteen in the cast, most of the attention is understandably focused on the title competitors – Frost (Peter Simon Hilton) and Nixon (John Jellison).
Neither actor looks much like his real-life counterpart, nor do they fall into the trap of impersonation. But each captures the essence of the role, gradually working his way inside the character’s skin. By the end of the two-hour intermissionless evening, you are bound to be convinced that you were in the presence of Frost and Nixon.
This is particularly so for Jellison’s Nixon, a man ill-suited for politics because of his lack of charm, natural or otherwise. With a hunched posture that suggests a discomfort with his own body, he is a broken man. Yet when the harsh lights are on and the cameras begin rolling, he knows how to drone on, eating up the contracted interview time until the only remaining topic is the only one that matters – Watergate.
Hilton’s Frost is cast as a lightweight, more comfortable interviewing an Australian tennis star than a fallen president. His natural milieu is show biz, not politics, but he understands the power of television. Early on, as Nixon gains the upper hand fielding Frost’s softball questions, Hilton sinks lower in his chair. His team of advisors grow pessimistic, but Frost is not one to be counted out.
The interview scenes are close to recorded history, but dramatic and suspenseful nevertheless. Perhaps the play’s best scene is one that Morgan completely fabricated, a late night phone call from Nixon to Frost on the eve of their initial interview. Even with a few drinks in him, Nixon is still a master manipulator and, mano-a-mano, Frost grasps the difficult assignment before him.
As their boxing seconds, Wayne LeGette (James Reston, Jr.) and Jim Ballard (Jack Brennan) narrate the tale, injecting themselves into the fray when necessary. Brad Peterson’s projection design plays a vital role, as the electronic images loom over the live action, bathed in Paul Black’s harsh, unforgiving light.
You are likely to arrive at the Maltz with a definite opinion of Richard Nixon, and perhaps you will leave with that same view. But during the two hours in between, you will come to understand him a bit more, a man of inner turmoil, fighting to resurrect his personal and political legacy.
Where: Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter
When: Through Sun., Feb. 21
Tickets: $55 and up. Call: 561-575-2223
The verdict: A fact-based fictional drama of titans from different realms, each trying to resurrect his career, with two towering performances by Jellison and Hilton.