TAMPA — Frost/Nixon is the ultimate political boxing match. In one corner, Richard M. Nixon, scheming to rehabilitate his reputation after the downfall of Watergate. In the other, British talk show host David Frost, gambling that his series of TV interviews with Nixon will establish his credentials as a serious newsman — and get him a good table at Sardi's. Peter Morgan's play, which opened Tuesday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, also sets up an encounter between stage and screen. How does the experience of watching the play, starring Stacy Keach as Nixon, stack up against Ron Howard's movie adaptation, with Frank Langella, who was nominated for an Oscar as best actor?
Keach as Nixon
The actor is stockier and more barrel-chested than Nixon was, and his performance reminded me, improbably and effectively, of a large turtle, his bullet head thrusting out from hunched shoulders. This is not a Rich Little-style imitation — there is only a flash of the infamous two-handed V-for-victory sign — but an interpretation that captures Nixon's humiliation and sense of inadequacy in a sympathetic way. He's an insanely jovial raconteur telling stories about meeting with Leonid Brezhnev or trying to making small talk in Mandarin Chinese.
Keach vs. Langella
The issue is not really the difference between the two actors — both are great — but the difference between live theater and film. The closeups of Langella's face allow for a more subtle portrayal that yields remarkably fresh insight into what made Nixon tick. Langella's Nixon has a more leonine presence, a Machiavellian prince licking his wounds in exile at San Clemente. Keach, by necessity in a 2,500-seat theater, gives a broader, more physical performance that is richly comic: Buster Keaton as Nixon.
The production is sprinkled with clever touches, ranging from references to Middlemarch (the novel being read on a plane by Frost's girlfriend, Caroline, played by Roxanna Hope) to Adam Cork's funky '70s Shaft-style score.
Frost looms larger
As fine as Michael Sheen, left, is as Frost in the movie, he is overshadowed by Langella's Nixon. In the play, though, Frost is fully the equal of Nixon in the hilarious performance by Alan Cox, right, as the "unlikely white knight," clipboard in hand, like a summer camp social director, who wrests an apology from the disgraced ex-president.
Director Michael Grandage smartly places a giant video monitor over the back of the stage and broadcasts the interview sequences as the actors perform them onstage, like a rock concert. This probably helps someone watching the play from the upper galleries.
The play is clearer than the movie on how much Nixon got paid for the interviews: $600,000 plus a percentage of gross profits, thanks to his hygiene-obsessed agent, Swifty Lazar (Stephen Rowe).
Morgan inflates the importance of the Frost/Nixon interviews — I doubt that many viewers watched all of them back in 1977, and the bombshells weren't as striking as the play makes them out to be — but, of course, that's what playwrights do. More dubious is the play's fictionalization of certain events, such as the pivotal drunken phone call Nixon makes to Frost the night before their Watergate interview; it never happened.
Should you go?
For longtime Nixon watchers who were glued to the TV during Watergate, the play is indispensable. For younger audiences who know Nixon from a distance, the film's fluidity may tell the story better.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.