I wonder if, in some retirees’ home in England, there’s a tyrannical teacher or hard-ass coach congratulating himself over Peter Morgan’s success. Consider the record. In Morgan’s screenplay for The Queen, a spry young Brit grapples with the fearsome Elizabeth II. In The Last King of Scotland, a spry young Brit is menaced by the murderous Idi Amin. Now, in Frost/Nixon, a spry young Brit confronts the trickiest, slipperiest authority figure of all.
It’s 1977, and David Frost has ventured to California to land the first post-resignation interview with Richard Nixon. As in his screenplays, Morgan has a nimble touch for conflicts not between sworn enemies but putative collaborators: Both the grinning TV personality and the conniving ex-president hope to revive their careers by outfoxing their onscreen partner. The story’s blend of history and fiction may not have the eloquent force of The Queen—it doesn’t have as much to say about politics and showbiz as it thinks it does—but it grabs you for the same reason Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker’s performances did: Whether from bitter experience or a leap of the imagination, Morgan has an uncanny knack for making crowned heads and assorted monsters seductive.
And he did create the “Richard Nixon” that Frank Langella is playing so marvelously at the Jacobs, one distinct from the others we’ve seen onstage and onscreen (or in the White House). In Russell Lees’s Nixon’s Nixon, which was revived Off Broadway earlier this season, the president seemed a blustering buffoon, albeit a clever one. Anthony Hopkins, in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, played him as a sneaky, sweaty drunk. When Langella lopes onstage, he at first seems just as broad a caricature. His arms swing low, his hands curl in half-claws, and he stoops, jutting his neck forward. Seen head-on, this Nixon looks simian; in profile, like a malevolent turtle. But as the performance deepens, what really strikes you—especially coming from Langella, one of the world’s great scenery-chewers—is his subtlety, his coiled restraint.
Historically, these interviews are important because Frost got Nixon to admit that he had “let down the country.” As Morgan recounts the maneuvering that led up to that long-sought mea culpa—including an imagined eve-of-battle chat for the principals, à la De Niro and Pacino in Heat—Langella uses his considerable charm to preserve the man’s dignity. The unwillingness of actor and playwright to create another capital-V Villain pays off during an exchange on Watergate. Because this is a rare depiction of a Nixon I can imagine people voting for—if not enough to elect him president twice—it’s shocking (and timely) when Langella declares, “I’m saying that when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.”
As Langella’s Nixon writhes in his own skin, the excellent Michael Sheen (who played Tony Blair in The Queen) remains smooth, facile, and, above all, supremely camera-ready. Director Michael Grandage has mounted a bank of TV screens at the rear of the stage, so that, during the interviews, we see the actors life-size in three dimensions and blown up in two. The best moment in the show comes when Frost, preening and on the attack, stuns Nixon by reading his own damning words back to him. Langella doesn’t stammer or bristle; he merely turns his head, taking what feels like an hour to make a slow, silent arc away from Frost, past the camera, then out over the audience to look at …who can say, exactly? He’s retreated into one of those caves that Morgan excavates for his characters.
As absorbing character study, there’s no beating this play, but as political drama, you’ll hear some tinniness. In its early moments, Morgan invites us to think of the president’s self-destruction as a hubristic fall in an old tragedy. For all his power, though, Nixon never had a hero’s stature, the grand dimensions of personal or political character that make such a fall resonate. The fact that a man with such a deft touch for global power politics could be ruined by acting like a small-time capo offers an interesting irony but not a tragic one. The play doesn’t bolster the cast for calling Nixon a power-mad Macbeth or self-glorifying Richard III. Its achievement is making him seem like an altogether different kind of monster: the tormented, self-pitying, and pitiable-in-spite-of-himself Caliban.