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January 4, 2013

Plenty of heat in CAST's 'Frost/Nixon'

That little slash in the title of Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon” carries a lot of responsibility.

It suggests that the battle between the disgraced ex-president and the disregarded pseudo-journalist is the psychological equivalent of a prize fight.

It implies that the men may be a reflection of each other: two people who have never felt sufficiently respected, no matter how high they’ve climbed in politics or TV stardom.

Most importantly, it reminds us the play has to be kept in balance. History has declared Frost the victor in their contentious series of interviews from 1977: He finally got Nixon to take responsibility for covering up the Watergate burglary, if not authorizing it. But we’re meant to empathize with both.

We’re immediately on the side of Frost (Hank West), who puts on a grave air and a brave face for the most important assignment of his career. Who can’t root for the overmatched underdog, even if he’s a bit of a flashy twit? But director Michel Harris knows we must also stay connected to Nixon.

I’ve seen three men in this role so far. Stacy Keach played Nixon as an angry, paranoiac blowhard on the national tour. Frank Langella turned him into a smooth-talking monster in Ron Howard’s film. But in Carolina Actors Studio Theatre’s version, Lamar Wilson makes him a pitiful ball of anxieties.

The real Nixon was a smart, hard-working man and mean-spirited liar whose international achievements were overshadowed by his domestic criminality. But the play’s Nixon is self-deluded and pathetic from the moment we see him, even when raging at imagined enemies. (This is the best thing I’ve seen Wilson do, among his many good performances. He really gets the voice, walk and jaw-thrusting aggressiveness.)

Morgan balances attributes of supporting characters, too. Jack Brennan (Scott C. Reynolds), Nixon’s chief of staff, has blinders on when he speaks of his boss or Vietnam, yet his misguided devotion has a dignity to it. Journalist James Reston (Tom Ollis), the play’s narrator, rightly longs to bring Nixon to account if not to justice, but Morgan makes him irritatingly strident at times.

Robert Lee Simmons’ set includes Federal-style pillars missing chunks and an American flag that’s torn but not destroyed, symbolizing the United States that was shaken but intact after Nixon’s misdeeds.

Its centerpiece, an immense video screen, seems at first a redundancy in the small theater: We can easily see what the actors are doing and feeling a few feet away. Yet that screen magnifies the emotions of the characters: Frost’s queasy feeling that he’ll have to score a journalistic knockout to “win,” Nixon’s falsely inflated confidence that his superficial answers will win back the hearts of voters who’d turned on him.

When this Nixon finally collapses, he does so in an image that’s twice life-size. It’s a big defeat for a man who could’ve been great, just as his disgrace was a big defeat for the country – and, when successor Gerald Ford gave him an absolute pardon, a defeat for our legal system. Anyone who has forgotten what these events meant to America (or never knew) will find them brought home powerfully in “Frost/Nixon.”

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