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Not your father’s Dick

Empty Spaces’ gripping Frost/Nixon is better as drama than history




through April 28 | Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St. | 407-328-9005 | | $20

Some plays are plagued by historical inaccuracies; Frost/Nixon IS a historical inaccuracy. According to playwright Peter Morgan, British broadcaster David Frost’s 1977 interview with Richard Nixon was a pitched battle of wills that resulted in the disgraced ex-president finally admitting his complicity in the Watergate cover-up. In reality, the program was a notoriously uneventful snore-fest in which Nixon once again denied his involvement, not copped to it.

This indefensible fiction seems to exist mainly so Morgan can fly the Union Jack in defiance of the facts. As theater, though, it can be awfully compelling – especially as presented (in its area debut) by the Empty Spaces Theatre Co(llaboration). Directors John DiDonna, Kevin Becker and Seth Kubersky have staged the show with wit and in postmodern layers of representation. I was simply floored, for example, by the effectiveness of the video screens that show how the interview is registering on camera while the real thing plays out just below. Without pulling focus, that tactic allows us to monitor the two men’s all-important reactions (Frost’s in particular) in a way that straight staging never could. It also reinforces the point that, to a degree, both the questioner and his guest saw their careers rise and fall based on how they came across on television.

The off-camera negotiation between the Frost and Nixon camps is as important to the play as the interview itself. Actor Tim Williams nails the Brit’s metamorphosis from a twirling show-biz lickspittle into a serious interrogator who has realized there’s more at stake than his Q rating. It’s like watching Alan Partridge graduate from the Edward R. Murrow School of Journalism. Meanwhile, Stephan Jones proves perhaps the best I’ve ever seen (including Anthony Hopkins and even Frank Langella) at replicating Nixon’s cadences and carriage without sinking to cheap exaggeration. From his first utterances, you really feel you’re in the presence of the old Red-baiter himself.

Standout supporting players include John Bateman as a suitably fervent James Reston, the liberal journalist who pushes Frost to go for the jugular, and John Moughan as Jack Brennan, Nixon’s supportive chief of staff and voice of their perceived “silent majority.”

Empty Spaces has done beautiful work here – work so good, in fact, that you almost forget it’s in the service of a pretty toxic lie. A Nixon who confesses his sins, even under duress, is better than the one we got, who went to his grave unpunished and unrepentant. As a result, some of his underlings felt emboldened to commit even worse crimes as part of later administrations. If Morgan one day writes a play that shows Dick Cheney admitting to lying about WMDs, it will behoove us all to remember that that hasn’t happened either.

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