The Medium, the Message, the Drama of TV’s Q & A (New Nixon Play/NYC)

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The conversations between David Frost and Richard Nixon that are the basis of Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon,” newly on Broadway, took place over 28 hours 45 minutes during 12 days in March 1977. Distilled into four 90-minute segments and broadcast later that year, the interviews were shot in California, near Nixon’s San Clemente estate, in a rental house whose appointments seemed a threat to whatever dignity the former president might have hoped to reconstruct.

The journalist and his adversary faced each other on a white shag rug in moiré armchairs the color of an unwashed taxi. The effect of the arrangement is startling now, and it prompts us to consider just how deep into the crevices of American life the big Nixonian mess seemed to cast its dust. The whole louche, chaotic, regrettable aesthetic of the 1970s is on display, and right along with it, the visual logic implies, the culprit of all the disorder.

“Frost/Nixon,” which establishes the setting of the talks more soberly, invests itself primarily in dramatizing the back story of Mr. Frost’s efforts to secure the interview with Nixon and ultimately wrest from him an apology for transgressions of the public trust. In that vein, the play borrows only a small fraction of the material from the actual televised discussions (parts of which can be seen online, though not dependably, on DVD and at the Museum of Television and Radio, which will screen highlights on May 5 and 6). At the level of pure form, the interviews, which I watched before seeing the play, must be seen to be fully appreciated — for their languorous pace, for the somnolent expression that crosses Mr. Frost’s face, for the interviewer’s habit of massaging his fingertips, a nervous gesture Mr. Frost manages to indulge with the odd serenity of someone merely waiting to see his accountant....

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