“Frost/Nixon” Echoes with Galvanizing Force at Schenectady Civic Players
“Well, when the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.” “If the president does something that he thinks will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” One of these statements was made in a 1977 television interview between David Frost, a seemingly lightweight television talk show host and Richard Milhouse Nixon, the disgraced 37th President of the United States who is the only president to resign. The other was made on Wednesday by the 45th president’s counsel.
Remember disgrace? Remember shame? There are moments in “Frost/Nixon,” a great play by Peter Morgan (“The Crown”) being given a very strong production at SCP, that go off in your head like a bomb. Moments that will have you nodding in recognition or remembrance and moments that will have you shaking your head and grieving for how far we have evolved or haven’t. Can it only be 46 years ago that Nixon resigned rather than face a trial? What has happened that has brought us to the point where we are incapable of even bring a proper trial against the current President?
The events of the play are narrated by Jim Reston (Nick Bosanko), a journalist who has written books on Nixon’s corruption and signs on to David Frost’s (Conrad T. Browne-Lorcher) preparation team for four prime-time interviews with Richard M. Nixon (Steven Leifer). Frost is trying to scratch his way back to respectability and get back to the “headlines and top tables at Sardi’s.” Nixon is looking to salvage his image and remind people all that went well in his administration, primarily his diplomacy. Reston and Bob Zelnick (Michael Schaefer) are looking to give Nixon the trial they feel the American public was denied by Nixon’s resignation. They hold a fervent belief that without accountability, we are lost, that “democracy is dependent on it.”
Evan Jones in his directorial debut at SCP has gathered a stellar community of actors and crew to tell this monumental story of hubris and downfall. First, his selection of “Frost/Nixon” is impeccable and couldn’t be better timed. His production team includes Nicholas Nealon who designed lights and the invaluable video projection which dominates the second act as the actual interview dialogue is played onstage and projected on a giant screen upstage. Excellent! Beth Ruman did costumes and finds great contrasts in the sartorial choices between the two camps. Laura Graver did hair and makeup and I need to note Browne-Lorcher’s hair which looks nothing like Frost’s but has a great ‘70’s loucheness. Brian Starnes did the sound design and makes fantastic contributions to the production like the “Up with People” peppiness of the Nixon rally song at the top to the low volume, sneaking, insinuating use of “Gimme Shelter” before the interviews begin. The set is by Nick Bosanko, doing double duty, and I loved how swiftly the story was told and the use of the entire Playhouse stage but he could have used more support from the Playhouse budget. The idea of the stack of televisions is a great one but could have used an upgrade. There is a beautiful spectral moment late in the play when Leifer enters in his white shirtsleeves from the farthest corner upstage and slowly makes his way down to a drunken phone call with Frost on the eve of their final face-off. Great scene teed up impeccably by the staging and design. Kudos to stage manager Amanda Lupe, Properties by K. Lindsay Schoen in their Playhouse debut and Jennifer Van Iderstyne producing for the first time.
Conrad T. Browne-Lorcher is sensational as David Frost. His dialect is exquisite, he’s sexy as hell and he walks the tightrope between show business and politics, essential to the play, like he was born to it. His long question about Cambodia was mesmerizing in its detail and specificity. He throws off sparks whenever he is onstage. Area veteran Leifer gives one of his strongest performances to date from his easy, breezy command of his surroundings in his opening scene which startles you when you realize it’s his resignation to his final video image in defeat. His Nixon in the opening scenes of the interview is commanding and his choice not to imitate Nixon turns out to be inspired as you listen even closer to his words. The two play off each other exceptionally well and the deathmatch that is promised in the drunken phone call doesn’t disappoint. When will we hear “I put the American people through two years of agony and I regret it”?
Bosanko is terrifically nuanced as the teller of this tale, his righteous indignation gives way to celebrity deference when he actually meets the man who he has been vilifying for years. Schaefer is strong as the other pit-bull in Frost’s corner who demands Frost get more adversarial with Nixon. Local mainstays Ryan Palmer, Joe Plock, Angelique Powell, John Quinan and Abbi Roy who have all easily carried their own plays in leading roles all do sterling work in support here. Special mention to backstage support Jennifer Bullington who has cameos as Pat Nixon and Diane Sawyer. Only Nick Muscatiello who has done exemplary work in such diverse works as NorthEast Theatre Ensemble’s fantastic production of “The Seagull” at Mabee Farm to the “Hair” at SLOC a few years back misfires here as Nixon’s chief of staff, Jack Brennan. His dialect is wandering and his strict military demeanor is easily punctured to the point of being unhinged. Still, he has a tender grace moment with Nixon when he abruptly interrupts the interview when Frost has his boss on the ropes.
Evan Jones has taken an audacious risk choosing this play which depends so heavily on technology and with the help of Nicky Lightz and over a dozen of the shining stars of the Capital Region theater community has hit the jackpot. He has brought to life an urgently necessary myth from America’s past which shocks us into consciousness.