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Monday, April 27, 2009
Frost/Nixon at Portland Center Stage
Gather around children and I'll tell you about a period in American history when people actually considered Richard Nixon to be the most contemptuous president to ever inhabit the White House. I don't quite understand it myself. Could his mistakes compete with those of Warren G. Harding or James Buchanan? Say what you will about Watergate and Vietnam, at least Nixon's screw-ups didn't lead to the Civil War. Regardless, everyone still despised the guy. Now we're all living in the post-GW era where a single bungled war effort and spying on your political opponents seem like good ol' days worthy of a dozen Thomas Kincaid paintings.
While watching Frost/Nixon at Portland Center Stage I found myself wondering how many members of the mostly Boomer-aged audience still consider Nixon an irredeemable, sweat-spewing monster. The play's script offers plenty of context for the era and the man's misdeeds but it's ultimately more interested in presenting a portrait of his doomed efforts at a political comeback post-Watergate. Here Nixon is a fallen political warrior desperate to redeem himself and get back into the game. His hopes all rest on the shoulders of fading talk show host David Frost, who lured the ex-president into a series of televised interviews in 1977.
PCS' production doesn't quite capture the gravitas of Ron Howard's recent film adaptation but it does an excellent job of staging their battle of the wills. During breaks in the interviews, the cast darts to opposites sides of the stage to discuss strategy. The show opens with a backdrop of video monitors pounding out historical footage. During the interviews, they're used to pan in close on actor Bill Christ's Nixon as he finally crashes and burns. The pace is fast and the show breezes by in a mere hour and forty-five minutes.
Christ looks more like Tony Soprano than Richard Nixon but his portrayal nicely captures the ex-pres' crumbling spirit. The play's final scene is enough, but not quite enough, to make you feel sorry for Nixon. The dialog during this bit is great. "You have no idea how fortunate that makes you, liking people. Being liked. Having that facility. That lightness, that charm. I don't have it, I never did."
Poor, ol' Mr. Nixon. Maybe all he needed was a hug. Where's my time machine? I wanna go hug Nixon in 1977 and maybe give him some hot cocoa!
I saw Frost/Nixon on opening night and I never worked up the gumption to pull aside someone from the crowd to ask them if they still hate Tricky Dick or if their thoughts have cooled in light of the Bush administration's numerous fumbles. I can only assume that, had I done this, they would have said something along the lines of "a villain is still a villain, regardless of their misdeeds or their fictionalized late-night cheeseburger chats with British talk show hosts."
So he's still a crook.