Frost/Nixon (Review)

Humor obscures play's more serious points

Tricky Dick did it again.

I went to see the touring production of Frost/Nixon with high expectations. The play won praise in London and New York, and the current film based on Peter Morgan’s play has been a hit.

But no more than a half hour into the 100-minute performance I felt like I’d been handed one more “gotcha” by a president who bamboozled Americans.

Based on the legendary 1977 television interviews of Richard Nixon by David Frost, the play proposes to give the discredited American president “the trial he never had.” Unfortunately, in this production it’s more like Nixon is played as the comedian he never was.

Frost/Nixon was performed at relatively intimate theaters in London and New York. It’s lost in the Aronoff Center’s Procter & Gamble Hall, which drains the dramatic potential from every scene.

It’s a shame the tour pre-empted productions on stages like the Cincinnati Playhouse’s Marx Theatre, where the action would have played closer to audiences and on a more human scale. Instead, we see Frost and Nixon’s cat-and-mouse game in a space resembling a wood-paneled lobby with minimal furnishings.

Add the rapid clip of Frost/Nixon’s action to this cool physical production, and what’s left are flippant remarks that are more humorous than humanizing. “Did you do any fornicating last night?” Nixon asks Frost just before cameras roll. The remark evokes a big laugh, but it wasn’t written as humor. I suspect it conveys Nixon’s awkwardness or a cagey attempt to unbalance his interviewer.

Venerable actor Stacy Keach doesn’t much resemble Nixon, especially when projected on a large video screen above the action. Alan Cox’s Frost feels more real, but other characters are minimally defined.

I was especially troubled by Brian Sgambati as veteran journalist Jim Reston, in his late sixties when he prepped Frost for these interviews. Sgambati is a young actor who played his narrator’s role more as brash, hot-headed polemicist than a seasoned observer who had covered the Nixon White House for years.

All this comes down to the confession Frost eventually extracts from Nixon: “I let the American people down.” Indeed. Again.

FROST/NIXON, presented by Broadway Across America, continues through March 8 at the Aronoff Center. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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