'Frost/Nixon' is a must-see

History comes alive in TheatreWorks production about disgraced ex-president

"Frost/Nixon," as staged by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, is a brilliant, astounding, not-to-be-missed 110 minutes of theater.

Everything about this production, directed by Leslie Martinson, is a triumph, from the excellent set and onstage media designed by David Lee Cuthbert to Allen McCullough's powerfully evocative performance as Richard M. Nixon.

Playwright Peter Morgan doesn't let history get in the way of a good story, anymore than did Shakespeare. Most of this play is as history recorded it but where Morgan wanders away from the facts, it is to illustrate some deeper truth. Or, maybe, just to make it work better in the theater.

Morgan draws Nixon -- who was reviled by liberals, abused the power of the presidency in attempts to punish people on his "enemies list" and wore a suit and tie to walk on the beach -- as a sympathetic character.

McCullough's Nixon often tries to crack a joke, stumbles humanly over some bit of courtesy or another, and gets teary and choked up while recalling his father.

And some, but not all, of Nixon's accomplishments are mentioned, especially his success in opening dialogue with China.

Even those of us who are old enough to have watched the Watergate hearings on television or have read the Woodward/Bernstein books can appreciate Morgan's alchemy in making Nixon rather sympathetic, at least for the duration of this play.

"Frost/Nixon" is the story of TV host David Frost getting Nixon to sit down for a series of interviews, a couple of years after Nixon had resigned the presidency in disgrace.

Both men needed the exposure. Frost, a Brit whose TV career had been reduced to interviewing minor celebrities in Australia, wanted a ticket back to New York. Nixon, who had barely survived serious phlebitis and depression after leaving the White House for his California estate, was in bad shape financially and wanted a path back to the East Coast and some kind of political meaningfulness.

The first part of this play limns how Frost and his team, which included fiery journalist James Reston Jr., and Nixon and his team, including Col. Jack Brennan and Hollywood dealmaker Swifty Lazar, danced around each other to make a deal. What subjects would be broached -- a quarter of the interview time would be about Watergate -- and how much Nixon would be paid ($600,000 up front, and 20 percent of any profits).

Jeremy Webb is excellent as Frost, seemingly insouciant but fully aware of what he needs to succeed with this huge project, which would take four weeks of interviews, at considerable cost.

Frost was considered a lightweight, and the major TV networks weren't interested in the project, which they disdained as "checkbook journalism." He had to hustle for financing and eventually got a syndication deal.

McCullough brings flesh to Nixon's intelligence, as the former trial lawyer and president easily controls the direction of the interviews early on, as Webb's Frost becomes more frustrated in his attempts to get Nixon to apologize for Watergate.

It's a battle, and makes for great theater.

Kenny Toll is solid and impassioned as Reston, who keeps digging for evidence to use against Nixon, whom he hates. He is disgusted with himself when he shakes Nixon's hand. Toll is one of the onstage narrators, the other being Craig Marker as Brennan. Marker brings solid sincerity to his respect for the former president.

It's an almost all-male cast, with Nixon's wife and daughters mentioned but not seen. Alicia Piemme Nelson has a short bit as tennis player Evonne Goolagong, to illustrate how far Frost had fallen; and Elena Wright is on hand as Caroline Cushing, apparently to illustrate that Frost liked beautiful women.

The set is very impressive, switching from the White House to British and American hotel rooms to a seaside home where the interviews took place. Overhead, there is the sort of lighting structure expected to be seen in a TV studio (take a bow, lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt). Upstage are 35 large TV monitors that are brilliantly used to display backgrounds, to become TV studio direction monitors, and at the key denouement, to focus in on McCullough's face as Nixon makes his deepest statement, as seen through the live TV cameras on stage.

That is the moment Frost knew he needed, and director Martinson makes it a triumphant note.

The entire cast is very good. But McCullough is transcendently brilliant. He brings a complete life to Nixon in this play: a performance not to be missed.

Freelance writer John Orr can be emailed at johnorr@regardingarts.com.

What: "Frost/Nixon."

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

When: Through Feb. 10.

Cost: $40-$100.

Info: Go to TheatreWorks.

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