Theater is at its best when it uses history to illuminate current times. A great historical play reminds us of those relentless truisms about civics: that corruption is a timeless craft, that it’s always the cover-up that will get you, and that politics is all optics.
Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon” checks all of these boxes, and in a dazzling new production at Irish Classical Theatre, provides great entertainment, too.
The play recounts the planning and execution of one of the greatest interviews in television history – a four-part series with British journalist David Frost and Richard Nixon, two secluded years after his resignation. The first of those specials, focused on the Watergate scandal, drew a record-breaking 45 million viewers – still the largest television audience for a political interview – and contained Nixon’s infamous admission about his wrongdoing that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
Morgan smartly pulls focus on the postmortem, in Frost’s pursuit of great television, above all else. It’s smitten with humor, sometimes as sobering diversion but more often as evidence of the unlikely parallels between Nixon and Frost. I’d hesitate to call it a comedy; that would be too cynical, even for Morgan’s distinctly British treatment of this incredibly American subject. But it is indeed very funny, if not troubling.
As Nixon, Jack Hunter is disarmingly personable, sometimes even cute. It’s not the brooding caricature of the lonely, icy leader we think of, thank goodness, but a portrait of a fallen man desperate to win back anyone’s trust and maybe affection. In Hunter’s successful pursuit of something new and revelatory, he is this well-prepared production’s biggest triumph.
Adriano Gatto’s Frost is just as transparent. Frost wants to make great television more than anything, more than he wants to move a political needle; in getting Nixon to (softly) admit wrongdoing he would do both. Gatto plays both public and private sides with great compensation, both the slick and the small. And he can interrupt Hunter’s Nixon like no other. They are a formidable match.
The rest of this cast is pitch-perfect in their renditions of various industry, political and personal confidants. Peter Palmisano and Matt Witten are resolute and stern, while David Lundy and Ray Boucher are unreservedly funny. Adam Yellen, in his signature way, pokes and prods the action along with a heavy wink. Jamie O’Neill supports in a number of roles.
Flawless design from Tom Makar on sound, Kari Drozd on costumes, and Susan Drozd on hair.
But weak is the inclusion of a romantic interest for Frost in the gestural sketch of Caroline Crushing, a strong-willed woman he charms in act one and who we only ever see again in thankless submission. Renee Landrigan is perfectly fine, though she has no apparent reason to be here, not in this version of her. This is a tired, cinematic trope and adds only negligible insight into Frost’s bachelor persona.
Director Brian Cavanagh’s staging is fun and inventive, always framed around the proverbial gaze of the camera. A raised center platform serves as a pedestal for our appointment viewing; discussions on the perimeter seem to reserve major action for the center ring. Cavanagh’s sexy lighting rekindles the alluring glow of 1970s television, and the production standards that would inform the likes of Barbara Walters’s infotainment a decade later. Razzle dazzle ‘em, as they say.
It’s interesting to note that in 2019, the play feels more immediate than it must have in its 2006 debut, or even its 2008 film adaptation, before it would catch up to our very current reality – the one that makes Watergate look like a quaint flub. There’s no precedent for what’s currently unfolding, but at least there are reminders.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Presented through March 24 at Irish Classical Theatre, 625 Main St. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 to $45 (box office, irishclassical.com and by calling 853-ICTC).