The new David Frost/Richard Nixon play (NYT review)

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Television mows down a titan in “Frost/Nixon,” the briskly entertaining new play by Peter Morgan about the 1977 face-off between its title characters, the British talk show host (as in David) and the former American president (as in Richard M.). But let it be proclaimed, with drums and fanfare, that theater decisively trumps television in the production that opened last night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater.

Most of the credit for this victory belongs to a truly titanic performance from the man playing the famously sweaty victim of a cool medium. That’s Frank Langella, whose portrayal of Nixon is one of those made-for-the-stage studies in controlled excess in which larger-than-life seems truer-to-life than merely life-size ever could.

No screen, big or small, could accommodate such showy grandeur. And it’s telling that when this production — which recreates the story behind the widely watched television interviews between Nixon and Mr. Frost (the excellent Michael Sheen) — projects Mr. Langella’s image onto the bank of monitors at the back of the stage, his face registers as that of some grotesque mythic creature in uncomfortable captivity.

This tension between camera and subject italicizes a central theme of “Frost/Nixon,” a British import staged, with the momentum of a ticking-bomb thriller and the zing of a boulevard comedy, by Michael Grandage, the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London. Structured as a prize fight between two starkly ambitious men in professional crisis, “Frost/Nixon” makes it clear that the competitor who controls the camera reaps the spoils.

[HNN Editor: The review goes on to predict that Nixon scholars will be upset that the play plays with facts.]

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