By Peter Morgan
Directed by Louis Contey
At TimeLine Theatre
“Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” – Richard Nixon from the last Frost/Nixon interview, 1977
Dramatic recreation of the 1977 Frost/Nixon interviews is riveting theatre.
Score another coup for TimeLine Theatre snaring the Chicago premiere of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon. Director Lou Contey has a fast-paced, informative drama that both tells the story of the 1977 interview series of David Frost interviews of Richard Nixon.
Contey uses six TV monitors to demonstrate the power of that media to focus on facial expressions. Morgan’s play deftly depicts the 70’s as TV emerges dominant in politics as well as entertainment. This play grabs us from the opening scene where we see Richard Nixon’s resignation. Terry Hamilton is rivetingly effective as Nixon. Hamilton has the body language, tone inflections and facial expressions of the failed President down cold.
When we meet David Frost, he is a self-promoting talk show host with shows in Australia and Britain. He offers cash to Nixon for a series of interviews. Andrew Carter is most effective as he plays Frost as an apparently light-weight talk show host and celebrity more than a serious journalist. We eventually realize that Frost is a media savvy interviewer with good instincts as how to do an interview with a power man. Carter plays Frost with a low key charm, steely determination and a big-picture viewpoint. Frost knew that politics can be show biz.
Frost/Nixon, the play, nicely packages the historical events of the Nixon Presidency with a glimpse into the world of TV journalist. We see one ambitious man trying to use a failed world leader and a frustrated ex-President striving to be understood and vindicated. they each need the other. The dynamics of Frost’s interviews, that included a mostly ‘no-holds barred’ agreement, were unprecedented at the time.
Frost is surrounded by three key advisers nicely played by Don Binder (Don Zelnick), Dennis Grimes (John Birt) and Matthew Brumlow(Jim Reston). They couched Frost on strategy and feed him questions to ask Nixon. Nixon relied on his vast interview experience and his chief of staff Jack Brennan (David Parkes).
The interviewers start with Frost trying to rattle Nixon with a tough question. Nixon easily deflects Frost and turns the first few interviews into a justification of his Presidency. Frost’s advisers are livid. To younger audiences, Frost/Nixon plays out as mystery one-upmanship struggle between Frost and Nixon. To those of us who remember the last interview in 1977, we witnessed Nixon getting nailed by Frost and finally, to the degree he can, admit that he abused the power of the Presidency.
Terry Hamilton’s facial expression, jumpy eyes and restrained vocal tones were riveting. he has internalized Nixon’s psyche. Andrew Carter is smoothly nails Nixon in that last interview that the TV monitors caught him and Nixon in complete synchronicity. What a wonderful theatrical moment!
The power of that last interview was foreshadowed by a late night phone call from Nixon to Frost as Nixon rambles on about never being accepted by the Eastern Establishment elite. Hamilton was brilliant in that scene.
TimeLine theatre specializes in exploring history and stimulating conversation about political matters. The sure have given us much to talk about with Frost/Nixon. Younger audiences will learn much about Nixon in this marvelously well written and well staged play. Hamilton and Carter were amazing.
At TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington, Chicago, IL, www.timelinetheatre.com, tickets $28 – $38, Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm, running time is 1 hour, 50 minutes without intermission.