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Peter Morgan's "Frost/Nixon" arrives at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre a good 36 years after the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the pardon of Nixon by successor Gerald Ford and the subsequent high profile interview of Nixon by TV personality David Frost. The play also arrives after Ron Howard's movie version of Morgan's play was splashed on big screens across the country during the Christmas season.
For "Frost/Nixon," Morgan, a British writer who has made something of a specialty of modern political intrigues (the film "The Queen" was his look at the impact of the death of Princess Diana on the royal family), illuminates the high stakes for both Frost and Nixon during the 12 days of interviews that were eventually edited down to four 90 minute broadcasts. Frost has his reputation and financial life on the line and Nixon is aiming to vigorously defend his disgraced presidency. The two main characters are surrounded by figures that fall clearly on the side of one or the other. Morgan turns the confrontation into an examination of the relationship that develops between two men who couldn't be more different.
The challenge for the Rep's cast of 10, directed by Gilbert McCauley, is to interpret material that's well known by some and completely unknown to others.
"It did happen a long time ago," says McCauley. "But it had such an effect on American political consciousness that, in some ways, it's still present. Nixon and everything around him reverberates. How we look at politics today was shaped by Watergate. To see that, all you have to know is that we still put 'gate' after every scandal."
In preparation for their roles, Keith Langsdale, playing Nixon, and Brad Heberlee, playing Frost, watched the original interview. But both actors feel like that once rehearsal begins it is time to stop doing research and move into interpretation.
On Broadway and for the movie, the part of Nixon was played by Frank Langella, who received accolades for his performance, which centered on his mimicking the physical appearance of the heavy-jowled president. Langsdale is not going that route.
"My challenge is that I am not doing an impersonation," says Langsdale. "But I want to find the essence of the man."
The cast agrees that part of the lesson of "Frost/Nixon" is the way that TV has impacted politics and the way it's simplified otherwise complex issues. In many ways, the fight at the heart of the play is about gaining control of the medium. Even so, Frost's detailed and exhaustive interview seems miles away from today's blunt political shoutfests that dominate cable news.
Speaking of politics, at Thursday's preview performance, the Times' editor Max Brantley and associate editor Gerard Matthews will join “Frost/Nixon” director Gilbert McCauley and Rep artistic director Bob Hupp in a panel discussion on the intersection of politics and journalism and other issues surrounding the play. Their discussion begins at 7:15 p.m., with the preview slated to begin at 8 p.m.
Arkansas Repertory Theatre
April 23-May 9, $20-$40
7 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Special Arkansas Times-sponsored “Theatrical Prizefight” panel discussion and preview showing, 7:15 p.m. Thursday, April 22, $20-$40