New City Stage Company’s Philadelphia premiere of FROST/NIXON, the second installment in its 2013-14 themed season on presidential politics, is anything but the dry historical debate on the Watergate scandal and the Cambodian Incursion of the 1970s that you might expect had you not yet seen the play or the movie. Under Aaron Cromie’s brilliant direction, playwright Peter Morgan’s back story on the series of TV interviews conducted by faltering British talk-show host and international playboy David Frost in 1977 with disgraced US President Richard Nixon—the first in our history to resign—is a painfully tense and surprisingly humorous cat-and-mouse game. It reveals how much the two players had at stake and how much they had in common. And even though we all know the final results, NCSC’s one-hour-and-fifty-minute production, performed without intermission, will keep you entertained and absorbed through every second of the public debacle and behind-the-scenes machinations that brought an end to Nixon’s denials and elicited his apology to the American people.
Russ Widdall (Frost) and Dan Olmstead (Nixon) are masterful adversaries in the titular roles, as they negotiate, underestimate, size-up, and face-off against each other, while bringing depth, nuance, insight, and introspection to their infamous characters. Both convincingly adopt the recognizable personas, speech patterns, and mannerisms of the well-known figures, but also delve into their innermost insecurities and growing self-realizations. Their light-bulb moments are palpable, as their faces, voices, and attitudes subtly reflect the sudden flashes of awareness of themselves and their high-risk situation, and in so doing, render the much-scorned subjects fully human and even sympathetic–yes, sympathetic!–as well as innately sad, lonely, and tragic.
The superb lead actors are well supported by NCSC’s talented ensemble. Among Frost’s advisors, J Hernandez (who, in a major coup for the local theater community, just relocated to Philadelphia from North Carolina, following his critically acclaimed performance as Iago in The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s spring production of OTHELLO), is at times passionate, at times reflective as researcher Jim Reston, and Sam Sherburne proves again that he is an emerging talent to watch as newsman Bob Zelnick, whose outbursts on the state of the interviews are both fiery and funny. Nixon’s support team is a study in contrasts, with Jered McLenigan skillfully evoking the cold-blooded look and control of ex-Marine and post-resignation chief of staff Jack Brennan, and David Bardeen hilariously capturing the unbridled avarice and mysophobia of agent Swifty Lazar.
A smart scenic design by Cory Palmer, with a live feed of the shoots on monitors behind the TV cameras and crew, vintage audio clips and excellent live sound by Adriano Shaplin, ‘70s costumes by Kate Edelson, and effective lighting by Matt Sharp all serve to set the time and locales, shifting easily from airplane to hotel suite, from London and Australia to Washington, DC, and San Clemente. Following on the heels of its highly praised and well-attended run of RFK, FROST/NIXON should prove to be another huge hit for New City Stage Company. [Adrienne Theatre Main Stage] December 5, 2013-January 5, 2014, newcitystage.org.