/ Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017
Audiences have seen Chris Caswell successfully play a lot of different roles in the past 30 years, from romantic leading men to vengeful barbers, so nothing should surprise us when he takes the stage. Still, watching him in the Venice Theatre Stage II production of Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon,” I was stunned by how often I felt like I was really watching former President Richard Nixon.
Without much obvious makeup and avoiding signs of caricature, Caswell almost effortlessly captures the posture, demeanor and smarts of a man fighting for his political relevancy during a series of television interviews with British talk show host David Frost in 1977.
Those four interviews were among the biggest television news events in history and were watched by more than 40 million people, most hoping for and expecting some kind of apology or admission of guilt about the events surrounding the Watergate break-in that led Nixon to resign his office in 1974.
While it features some of the combative exchanges between Nixon and Frost on camera, Morgan’s play is mostly about the build up to the tapings, the negotiations between Frost’s production team and Nixon’s agent, the pressures on all sides and the motives behind them.
For Frost, the interviews were a chance to re-establish himself on American television, where his one-time talk show had been canceled. He wanted to be a significant player, and doing a penetrating interview with Nixon could help him reach that goal, but only if he could get Nixon to come clean and admit his mistakes. Nixon’s goal was just the opposite, to come off strong about his international achievements, as well as look compassionate and human, all to help sell both his own reputation and his memoir, and avoid a lot of the touchier aspects of the Watergate scandal.
Caswell has a fine sparring partner in Doug Landin as the cocky, playboyish Frost, who is busy with so many projects (and trying to sell advertisers on the Nixon interviews) that he barely has time to focus on the interviews themselves, which leads to tensions with his backers at the start.
During the interview segments, director Peter Ivanov gives us a double view. We see the two actors on stage, and then see them in closeup through video projections behind them, which adds a level of intensity.
Ivanov works well at building flow and energy through the background scenes, negotiations and research preparation on Frost’s side, though his supporting cast – Gregory Wollaston as narrator and journalist Jim Reston, Ray Burroughs as British producer John Birt and William Czarniak as American producer Bob Zelnick – is uneven and not as comfortable in their roles as the leads.
You get more command from Allan Kollar as Jack Brennan, the military veteran who serves as Nixon’s determined chief of staff, guiding him and encouraging like the manager of prizefighter. Kollar never loses focus.
Brian Freeman’s scenic design of some rotating panels and raised platforms makes varied use of the small space in the Pinkerton Theatre, even if it takes a lot of effort (and stagehands) to change the look from scene to scene. Nicholas Hartman’s costumes catch the spirit of the ’70s, from the prints to the ties and the shoes.
But the design elements are secondary to the surprising human drama at the heart of the play. Caswell and Landin make us care about the two men in the spotlight as they lead us through, once more, one of the most traumatic periods of American history.