Anna Holloway Review: Reflections on Lyric’s 'Frost/Nixon'
Aug. 8, 1974, was a very strange day in America. It’s the first and only time a president has resigned from office. I was there—at the White House, among the cameras in Lafayette Park—earlier in the day. Although my original intent was to go inside, the line was too long. It was later that evening, after a full day of showing an acquaintance around the museums and landmarks of D.C., that I watched the president announce his resignation. Three years later, David Frost interviewed Richard Nixon about the events leading up to that day, and thereby hangs a play.
“Frost/Nixon” explores the fallout of that event by re-animating the process and results of those interviews, and it opens up a conversation about the value of a sincere apology from a politician who has blighted his nation’s political landscape. Lyric Theatre’s production of Peter Morgan’s script, based largely on David Frost’s 1978 book, takes us even deeper by exploring the effect of television on how we see reality—a legitimate and necessary layer of understanding for the period of the play. It also opens the door to questions about the next layer: How does digital technology affect us—and the nation—today?
The two leads are eerily effective in their personifications of interviewer David Frost, on the razor’s edge of success or failure in his career, and Richard Nixon, already fallen and hoping for redemption. These two men come together in a televised battle of wits that can have only one victor—détente is not an option.
D. Lance Marsh’s evocation of the disgraced former president was a bizarre kind of double-exposure. Marsh does not resemble Nixon in form, face or voice, yet he was able to bring Nixon to the Lyric stage. Within a very short time, I was literally seeing double: The actor’s person becoming a background vehicle for the historical man. Marsh/Nixon re-animated a portion of my personal history and forced me to explore my own feelings about Nixon from both my recollections of the period and the altered perspective that 45 years of temporal distance must bring. It was a masterful portrayal of a president/disgrace.
David Frost had become a star by the late '70s and early '80s, and it was as a star that I remembered him. Matthew Alvin Brown’s finely drawn incarnation of Frost took me back to a time before his rise, when he was standing on the edge of a professional cliff. Brown/Frost recalled experiences of watching "the New York show" and the sense of inevitability that Nixon would talk to Frost—then shot it all to pieces with the revelation that the dilettante/interviewer’s professional life was in fact careering downhill and might not survive.
Marsh and Brown are surrounded by a team of solid professionals, led by Gregory DeCandia as Jim Reston, who served as Frost’s resource adviser in his preparation for the interviews. Reston serves as our narrator and guide through the arcane business of scheduling, designing and executing interviews intended to button up the whole business of Watergate. DeCandia personified the proto-hipster writer and passionate liberal while deftly outlining the history being made before us.
Jonathan Beck Reed and David Dobson brought to life Bob Zelnick and John Birt, both of whom struggled with the process of getting the interviews produced and edited for broadcast. Ronn Burton was effective as both a recognizable Mike Wallace and a spot-on Swifty Lazar. Andi Dema gave a strong performance as Jack Brennan, the Marine aide who was convinced by Nixon to become his personal chief-of-staff after the resignation.
Lyric’s production team has built an environment for the production that demonstrates the way in which television images have become a form of reality that is both physical and virtual, and therefore subject to a range of interpretations. Lighting designer and master electrician Fabian J. Garcia must be credited with making television itself a notable character in the play.
The production as a whole lives up to Lyric’s usual excellent standard. The play, with its minor artistic liberties, reminds us that the corruption of the highest is the worst of all.
Running Wednesdays through Sundays through Sept. 22, “Frost/Nixon” plays at Lyric’s Plaza district theater, 1727 NW 16 St. For tickets, call the box office at 405-524-9312 or go to www.lyrictheatreokc.com.