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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, NY

By Mervyn Rothstein

  Michael Sheen and Frank Langella

Frank Langella has won two Tony Awards, for Seascape and Fortune's Fool. Well, now he deserves a third, for Frost/Nixon.His portrayal of former President Richard M. Nixon is mesmerizingly powerful, the stuff of stage legend.

In an acting coup de theatre at the Jacobs Theater, Langella essentially becomes Nixon. The actor doesn't look even remotely like the disgraced former president, and he doesn't use special makeup or prosthetics. And yet his posture, his gestures, his facial expressions, the tone of his voice, all seem quintessentially Nixonian, without ever descending into caricature.

But it's not just the outward appearance. Langella seems to have captured the essence of the man - the paranoia, the suspicion, the loneliness, the self-loathing - to have plunged into the depths of Nixon's being, to have given us, to quote from the play, "a glimpse into that shadowy place we call our soul."

Langella shows us what made the former president tick.

While Langella was still performing in the play in London - where critics acclaimed him for an "extraordinary acting feat" - he told me, for an article I wrote for Playbill, that he had "come to be incredibly empathetic - rather than sympathetic - with Nixon, very protective of him," that he had "come to have compassion for a man who was unhappy in his own soul, a man unable to breathe the very air most humans breathe, a man who on a daily basis would wake up with what he calls the voices in his head, the overwhelming ambition, the driving need to succeed."

At the same time, Langella said, Nixon's is a soul bent on self-destruction. The former president's drive to succeed, the actor said, was coupled with the belief that he had no right to success - little voices in his head, just like little voices in all our heads, told him that he was a phony, that he was really untalented, that people didn't like him. For Nixon, those voices became a relentless time bomb that eventually exploded in the Watergate scandal, a cataclysm that ended his career and badly damaged his country.

It's perhaps Langella's empathy, his compassion - for the man, not for the possible crimes Nixon committed - that drives his performance, that enables him to turn a very unlikable character, one who in his public life was mostly surface, largely hidden, into a truly three-dimensional human being.

Frost/Nixon by the British writer Peter Morgan , shows us how in 1977, the talk-show host David Frost, after 12 days of face-to-face questioning, got Nixon to apologize for the Watergate scandal and admit that he had "let the American people down."

It's Morgan's first work for the theater - but his credits include screenplays for both The Queen (for which he got an Oscar nomination) and The Last King of Scotland. Helen Mirren won the best-actress Oscar this year for The Queen and Forest Whitaker was named best actor for The Last King of Scotland, so it's clear that whatever else you can say about Morgan, he knows how to write a star vehicle.

Frost is played by Michael Sheen, who was Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen. Sheen is spot on in his portrayal of a man with a fading career who seeks to use Nixon to recapture his own past success. At the time, Frost was considered by many to be a performer rather than an interviewer or a journalist. He had no political convictions and had never voted - he was a man "of great fame, without any discernible quality." And yet his own relentless drive, combined with a little help from his aides, enabled him to do what no one else had done - get Nixon to say he was sorry.

The play unfolds on a spare set whose prime feature is a bank of 36 television monitors. There ar


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