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It's difficult to consider Richard Nixon beyond caricature. Or rather, aside from that goofy double peace-sign wave, it's difficult to remember him as anything but a head, a great bulbous mass of broad Irish nose, laser eyes and jowls, flapping to the rhythm of all the terrible things he said.
For its new production of Peter Morgan's “Frost / Nixon,” the Rep found a strikingly similar head on actor Keith Langsdale — estimable, round through the chin, jowly. But Langsdale doesn't follow his face down the path of mimicry. Rather, he comports himself and his voice in broadly presidential fashion. He moves decisively, gestures expressively and talks in a careful, stentorian tone. And once he gets past a campy opening bit, where Nixon jokes, awkwardly, with camera men and aides just before he goes on television to tell the American people he'll resign, he's utterly believable as the fallen president. In the end, he delivers a Nixon who is, if not sympathetic, leagues more complex than an evil head.
He's helped, of course, by the material. Morgan, who's built his career on adapting modern political history for the stage and screen (“The Queen,” “The Last King of Scotland”) takes the 1977 interview between the title characters — a signal event of the era, but not exactly riveting TV today — and transforms it into a thoroughly engaging heavyweight bout.
The challenger, David Frost (Brad Heberlee), is a British talk show host who interviews celebrities, the epitome of a lightweight, a notion Heberlee helps along with a healthy dose of British jocularity. Nixon, in all but that opening scene, resides in a kind of political purgatory in his native California, where Watergate has left him persona non grata. Frost, eager to add some heft to his reputation and conquer the U.S., where he'd previously failed, fields an offer for a “no-holds-barred” interview with the president. Eager to escape purgatory and convinced of Frost's ineptitude (the interview will be “like a big wet kiss,” Nixon's agent tells him), the former president assents, and for unheard-of terms — $600,000 for the interviews and 10% of the profits, a cost that threatens to bankrupt Frost.
Director Gilbert McCauley (“Fences” and “Looking Over the President's Shoulder”) delivers the play to us on a spare set, with nothing more than a table or a few chairs and several large square dividers, meant, perhaps to evoke television screens. Yet, with frequent narration, from Nixon adviser Jack Brennan (David Sitler) and Frost's interview coach James Reston Jr. (Mark Irish), which often weaves in and out of dialogue, the pace moves along briskly.
Nixon scholars will squirm at some of the liberties Morgan takes with the facts. He rearranges the chronology of the interview so that the knockout blow comes at the end of the play. But it's the penultimate scene, the only one that I know of that's a complete fabrication, which hits the hardest. Nixon, drunk the night before the portion of the interview dedicated to Watergate, rings Frost in his hotel room. Frayed by nerves and drink, the two talk informally and honestly, and it becomes clear not only how similar the stakes are for the two men, but how emotionally alike the two are. “The limelight can only shine on one of us,” Frost tells Nixon. “For the other, it will be the wilderness.”