Mr. President

Richard Nixon—the man, the president, the political caricature—relives the nightmare that defined his life in Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, onstage at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre through February 21. While most associate the Maltz with fantastical musicals, it also wows with more understated pieces that trade spectacle for character development. And Director J. Barry Lewis succeeds at pulling unexpected emotion out of the behind-the-scenes moments surrounding one of modern history’s biggest scandals.

Peter Simon Hilton as David Frost and John Jellison as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon. Photo by Alicia Donelan

   Part political drama, part living history, Frost/Nixon is a battle of dialogue centered around two men: the thirty-seventh president of the United States Richard Nixon and British talk show host David Frost. Between 1974 and 1977, Nixon resigned in disgrace, was pardoned by President Ford, and retired to California. But a life of leisure wasn’t enough for the man who established diplomatic relations with China and he yearned for a pardon from the American people and a return to the political limelight. He saw a possibility for that return in an interview with Frost, who was famous for his celebrity lifestyle and fluffy onscreen persona. But Frost was also on the hunt for higher levels of success and he saw a revealing interview with Nixon—and a combative discussion of Watergate—as his ticket to the big time. But, as Nixon notes, “The limelight can only shine on one of us.”

   Luckily for audiences, the limelight shines equally on both stars in this production.

   One must tread lightly when portraying a man like Nixon, and Broadway veteran John Jellison handles the role deftly. He nails Nixon’s vocal tone and cadence without ever slipping into SNL satire territory. In fact, he excels at shedding the Nixon veneer that saturates popular consciousness, presenting instead an honest incarnation of a broken man. Constantly dabbing at his perspiration and sporting a hunch that reflects decades of hard decisions, Jellison emotes the self-destructive nature of hubris. Apparently, victory salutes are bad for your health.

   In the other corner you have the lively, golden-haired Peter Simon Hilton as David Frost. Despite being faced with a much easier task, Hilton holds his own against Jellison’s Nixon—a necessity as the entire play revolves around the duo’s repartee. A smooth talker in a leisure suit, Frost falters when he first confronts Nixon, conveying his disappointment through lax body language and intimidated silence. But he not only makes up for it in the end, he also finds a way to make his personal progression as compelling as Nixon’s.

Frost and Nixon meet on the set of the infamous interview in Frost/Nixon. Photo by Alicia Donelan

   One of the most intriguing aspects of Peter Morgan’s script is how he provides exposition. As well known as this narrative is, there is a lot of historical background and behind-the-scenes knowledge necessary to fully understand the dramatic stakes. So Morgan has two characters—Nixon-obsessed reporter James Reston Jr. (played by Wayne LeGritte) and Nixon’s obedient chief of staff Jack Brennan (Jim Ballard)—periodically break the fourth wall to deliver insight. This conceit comes with inherent pitfalls but benefits from a rapid pacing that mirrors the frenetic nature of television.

   Given the televised interview at the center of Frost/Nixon, TVs and media consumption play a key role in the design of this production. Scenic designer Anne Mundell created a set framed by TVs that flicker with fuzz and switch between set images and, later, the interview. Sound designer and composer Marty Mets turns white noise into an instrument, using it to accent scene changes and underscore the palpable theme of public perception.

   Richard Nixon was never comfortable in front of the cameras. He lost the 1960 election in large part due to his poor performance in a televised debate. This we know. What we don’t often think about is how Nixon tried in vain to make up for his shortcomings of charisma. In Frost/Nixon, he wipes his sweaty brow between questions and ultimately comes out the loser against the media-savvy Frost. This perspicacious look at a man Americans think they know, combined with great performances and smart design, make the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s Frost/Nixon one for the history books.

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