It's ironic that when the biggest crooks are caught, it's often for minor infractions—for example, Al Capone getting locked up for tax evasion, or Richard Milhous Nixon resigning because of Watergate.

Frank Langella as Richard Nixon
This year's Tony Award winner,
Frank Langella, as Richard Nixon
After six million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Americans died in Southeast Asia, a small-time burglary aimed at pilfering Democratic party campaign details seems almost meaningless, yet for those who endured Nixon's slander, lies, and red-baiting, not to mention his tax evasion, illegal spying, campaign finance violations, and general lawlessness, his fall was a welcome, if small, recompense for the damage he exacted on the multitude of individuals he destroyed and the Constitution he trampled.

Michael Sheen as David Frost
Michael Sheen as David Frost
However, despite the Watergate scandal and trial, and despite his resignation, Nixon remained "an unindicted co-conspirator" of the famous burglary. So when talk show host David Frost's offer of a television interview was finally accepted by the Nixon camp about two and a half years after it was made following the resignation, Nixon had high hopes that this would be his ticket to rehabilitation.

Frost, too, was seeking to jump start his career, which had been on the wane since he lost his New York broadcast outlet and was in danger of losing his London base as well. And though Frost was a political lightweight, he had the sense to hire three researchers with solid credentials to supply him with the background material he needed to make something of this opportunity.

In Donmar Warehouse's production of Peter Morgan's new play, Frost/Nixon, director Michael Grandage and his principals, Frank Langella (Nixon) and Michael Sheen (Frost), turn this battle of wits between two media savvy pros into a high-stakes drama that holds both men's future in the balance.

(Left to right) Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon
(L to R) Michael Sheen as David Frost
and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon
Langella and Sheen zero in on their characters' physical tics and vocal traits, giving credance to the re-enactment of historical events, which is further bolstered by the live cameras and video feed during segments drawn from the actual interview tapes.

If the production had topped off there, Frost/Nixon would be a must-see for its stellar book that creates an impressive dramatic arc and genuine catharsis out of actual events and for the believability of the characterizations, but it goes further: Langella finds a piece of Nixon that cuts to the heart of the man's enigma—his ability to rationalize his actions and maintain a façade of sincerity in the face of massive countervailing facts; and though Frost is nowhere near as compelling a personality, Sheen provides him with a foundation from which, when his career and fortune are in the balance, he is able to draw the strength and insight to deliver the coup de grâce.

Strong performances by Corey Johnson as Jack Brennan, Nixon's stalwart chief of staff, Michael Kunken as Jim Reston, the noted author, and Strephen Rowe as Swifty Lazar, the famous agent, add color and depth to already charged proceedings.

Frost/Nixon runs through August 19th at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, New York City. 212-239-6262 or 800-432-7780.

Bob Bows


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