Nixon: Uncomfortable in his own Skin

Last Friday, upon returning home from a satisfying opening night performance of "Frost/Nixon" at Portland Center Stage, we snuggled up on the sofa with a nightcap and a bowl of popcorn and proceeded to surf the net on our respective laptops, engaging in a little post-theater research and memory freshening. There's nothing quite like historical research to top off a night of theater.

Since then, I’ve been trying to write a review, hoping to deliver a post that provides the reader with my uncanny analysis and musings on media, political corruption and human nature. I wanted to draw parallels between Nixon’s corruption and other political travesties, national and local. I wanted to reflect on the role of media in politics and how it has changed over the past 35 years. (Note: MY GOD! Has it been that long?).

Unfortunately, after six days of noodling, all I've come up with are dribs and drabs of incomplete thoughts. I keep getting distracted watching YouTube clips of the original Frost/Nixon interviews and listening to snippets of secret White House recordings. I'd like to be able to use the following Nixon blooper clip as a springboard for profound commentary on media and image-shaping, but mostly I just thought it was funny ... in a sad kind of way:

Over at Art Scatter, Bob Hicks writes more eloquently about Nixon as a tragic figure, so read his post (including the comments) and then pretend that you heard it from me. I'm done trying to weave the following random notes into a coherent essay. Best that you just go see the show, which runs through May 10th at the Gerding Theater ("The Bob"). It's good.

Full disclosure: I’m a neighbor and former colleague of director Rose Riordan and we frequently bump into each and talk about the business and art of theater while walking our dogs late at night. Our dogs are friends too.

1) "Frost/Nixon" is a complex technical achievement, with panels and set pieces that slide smoothly in and out, and lots of projected video (recorded and live). While tricky, all of these elements work together without being obtrusive or flashy – the whizbangery did not distract me from the story. The extensive use of video projection is an essential part of the storytelling and is not a gimmick. (Note: The actors aren’t lip-syncing to prerecorded video as one patron reportedly complained). The proscenium itself is encircled in a bezel that says, "I'm a giant TV set."

2) Technical bravado aside, the true key to the production’s success is that Riordan found just the right Nixon in Bill Christ. For any production of "Frost/Nixon," the big challenge is to transcend the three basic Nixons implanted in our brains: (1) The original Tricky Dick we watched on television from the Checker’s speech to his resignation; (2) the cartoon Nixon with floppy jowls and outstretched arms flashing the victory sign; and (3) Frank Langella.

Bill Christ conveys key Nixonian mannerisms and vocal inflections without sounding like a hack impressionist. He portrays Nixon’s complexities and vulnerabilities, and even manages to elicit a smidgeon of empathy. His nuanced acting holds up even when his gigantic mug is supersized on the video projection that dominates the set.

3) If there are weaknesses in "Frost/Nixon," they are in Peter Morgan's script. I think the play leans too heavily on expository speeches by two of the side characters: Jack Brennan (Scott Coopwood) on the Nixon team and Jim Reston (Adam Ludwig) as one of Frost's researchers. I’m not sure how else the necessary exposition might have been accomplished, but it struck me as a clumsy mechanism to bring the audience up to speed and move the story along. (Note: "Clumsy" may be too strong in this case ... make it "inelegant").

4) Other than Frost and Nixon, I thought the other characters were weakly developed (though well played and directed). Of course, the play's focus should be on the match between the title characters. Still, I would have liked to have known more about the other characters and their motivations, beyond what the script provides. For example, the character of Caroline Cushing (Allison Tigard) is introduced as a woman Frost meets on a flight while on his way to meet Nixon in advance of the interviews. She's invited to accompany him and they become an "item." In real life, Cushing was a journalist who had already been in a relationship with Frost for five years before the Nixon project. Tigard's portrayal gives the role enough weightiness to avoid coming across as Frost's arm candy, but the picture still seems incomplete.

5) The script makes David Frost out to be a journalistic lightweight and party boy. Perhaps that’s an accurate depiction, but it makes him less plausible as a “worthy opponent” (as Nixon ultimately declares). The underdog overcoming odds and beating a tough opponent is a perfectly legitimate plot trajectory. In this case, Frost's transformation from hapless bimbo to master debater seems to happen too quickly, conveniently and without enough dramatic tension. (Note: I couldn’t resist writing “master debater,” but did edit out the reference to Frost as a “cunning linguist” because I have my standards).

6) One of the play’s pivotal scenes involves a drunken Nixon making a late night phone call to Frost in which he exposes all of his insecurities and grudges. (Note: I’m putting “Drunken Nixon” on my list of potential band names). It’s a powerful and effective scene, but one that is completely fictional. I'm not sure what to think of that. I know, I know, it's a play, not a documentary, but still. (Note: I really mean it when I say I don't know what to think about this ... but at least it made me think about the role of truth and imagination in creating theater based in historical fact ... ).

7) I would like to say that "Frost/Nixon" will win a Drammy for best set, except that I think that category might be won by either "The Receptionist" or "How to Disappear and Never be Found" -- also directed by Rose Riordan. Bill Christ should at least be nominated for Best Actor -- but if he wins, the monkey-fightin' Portland acting community will go batshit crazy because he's from out-of-town.

8) Really. Go see the show. Ignore my little penny ante quibbles. It's really well done and is a fascinating story with lots to think about afterwards, food for thought, blah blah.

Oh, one more thing: It's always good to be reminded of how power corrupts. Nixon thought he had the right answers and that his reelection would serve the nation best; hence, the ends justified the means -- lying, cheating and covering up were okay because he was the guy with the brilliant mind and great ideas who was going to save us from ourselves and the rest of the world. Isn't that always the slippery slope upon which politicians risk finding themselves?


cynseattle said...

One of the points of pride I have in Culture Shock, as a participating blogger, is our creative and consistent use of the phrase and/or tag "batshit crazy. I wonder if we should try to copyright it?

Way to go, MTC...carry that banner!

MightyToyCannon said...

Yes! When "batshit crazy" first appeared as a label, I made a conscious decision to make sure it wasn't a singular occurence. Now I've gone and added "monkey fightin'" to our lst of labels. Oh my!