Watching Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon at Bay Street Theater is like watching a boxing match of wits. In a set of interviews filmed in two-hour segments, David Frost, brilliantly portrayed by Daniel Gerroll, hurls prying questions at former President Richard Nixon, portrayed by the incredible Harris Yulin, who dodges each with drawn-out anecdotes, seeking to cleverly wait out the clock. In each one’s corner, a coach directing the two public figures how to best destroy the other’s career permanently. The tension is palpable.
The play offers a detailed look at the events leading up to the landmark interviews between Frost, a British talk show host, and Nixon, that took place three years after the former President resigned. Director Sarna Lapine takes great care not to paint Nixon as the villain, while also not excusing the crimes he committed. For much of the play, he’s a dejected, tired old man, unable to find peace after being rejected by the country he lives to serve. His morals are far from perfect, believing that nothing the President does should be considered illegal, but the audience grows to understand him as more than a corrupt politician.
Yulin’s portrayal is nothing short of perfect and balances the complexities of the character with ease. When Nixon rambles to avoid answering a tough question, Yulin speaks clearly, never mumbling a single word. When he innocently questions Frost’s affinity for effeminate Italian shoes, viewers can’t help but chuckle and remember their own exchanges with judgmental grandparents.
Opposite him is Gerroll’s Frost, deemed frivolous by Nixon’s camp, despite coming across as eloquent and forthright. The British television star acted as the voice for the American people and staked his entire career on the success of the seemingly doomed interviews. Luckily for him, he had the foresight to assemble a team capable of drawing a Watergate concession out of Nixon.
Leading his research team is Jim Reston, portrayed by the breakout star of the show Christian Conn. Reston narrates for Team Frost, sharing backstory exposition, inner thoughts and scene details with the audience. By far the most aggressively anti-Nixon, Reston passionately preached the message of the liberal Americans who wanted the former President to pay for his crimes to the fullest extent of the law. Conn presented this righteous anger with powerful conviction, as if channeling his frustrations with the current presidency.
Team Nixon is narrated by Reston’s Republican counterpart, Jack Brennan. Richard Topol’s portrayal is that of a loyal follower and a skillful puppeteer. He guides Nixon through each interview, advising him to meander as much as possible and interrupting the taping when answers get too incriminating. The staging of the play places both teams on set, but out of the television frames. This positioning highlights how many political and idealistic influencers are pulling the strings behind the camera.
Television plays a major role in Frost/Nixon: the play opens with Nixon’s back to the audience while 12 screens display his face as he speaks into two cameras on-set. Throughout the play the cameras broadcast the intellectual battle. It’s an interesting directing choice that offers welcomed reaction shots of the two leads. Any time Frost doubles down on an accusation and Nixon gets flustered, the audience gets to see their faces contort with unbridled emotion.
Frost/Nixon flowed very quickly, concluding in 100 minutes with no intermission. Reston and Brennan stepped up to the spotlight every few minutes to progress the story, never allowing any one scene to linger for too long. The final act provides a beautifully fitting end, allowing the audience to breath after holding their breath though the rigorous fight. Those that watched the original interviews when they first aired will enjoy this faithful and intense retelling, and younger audience members will learn a great deal about one of this country’s most infamous characters.
Frost/Nixon runs through July 22 at Bay Street Theater (1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor). Tickets available at baystreet.com or 631-725-9500.