If the political machinations of the Nixon administration had been as smartly executed as the Orlando production of Broadway play "Frost/Nixon," history well could have taken a very different course.
Empty Spaces Theatre Co(llaboration) opened the first local production of the Tony-nominated Broadway play on Friday. It's a production full of good ideas and lifted by top-notch acting.
The play, by writer Peter Morgan, mixes fact and some flights of fancy as it recounts the events surrounding a series of real-life interviews in which British TV personality David Frost sat down with former President Richard Nixon.
The interviews, broadcast in 1977 — three years after Nixon resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal — were watched by millions and resulted in Nixon's stunning quote that placed him above the law: "When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."
Under the direction of John DiDonna and Kevin G. Becker, though, "Frost/Nixon" becomes more than a history lesson. For one thing, no history book was ever this amusing. Actors Stephan Jones and Tim Williams, in canny performances, go a long way in making these men more than names from a history book. They're aided by playwright Morgan, who ably uses humor to humanize his subjects.
Jones has the trickier role as Nixon, the better-known figure in the U.S. He steers well clear of caricature or impersonation, but as he dully plods his way through an interminable anecdote, overemphasizing consonants, Nixon is there. Jones lets us see Nixon's brain whirring — money always on his mind — but also shows the frustration of a man who can't quite grasp what has come to pass.
Williams, with a made-for-TV smile that exposes too many teeth, is in sharp contrast. With a "Cheerio, luv" accent, his breezy patter often builds to a third-rate quip suitable only for a TV studio audience. Yet, watch his posture and uncertain demeanor during the interviews — what you see is a man, his confidence draining away, who knows he's in over his head.
The key supporting actors get it right, too. John Moughan exudes a gruff single-minded self-righteousness as Nixon's right-hand man. On the flip side, John Bateman is bursting with righteous indignation as a Nixon critic who assists Frost.
The clever staging shows the audience video footage of the interviews while they happen, a brilliant way to illustrate the point that TV not only creates public perception but magnifies it.
Jennifer Bonner's costumes — mixing corduroy and shades of mustard, sickly green and brown — efficiently remind the audience it's the 1970s.
"Frost/Nixon" won't change anyone's mind about history, but it makes you think about how the intertwined worlds of politics, celebrity and media affect our beliefs. More important, "Frost/Nixon" also does what theater does so well: It makes you ponder the inner workings of the human psyche and perhaps find some empathy — even for Richard Nixon.
• What: An Empty Spaces Theatre Co(llaboration) production of the Peter Morgan play
• Length: 1:45, with no intermission
• Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando
• When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and Monday, April 22; 2 p.m. Sundays; through April 28
• Tickets: $20; $15 students and seniors
• Call: 407-328-9005
• Online: RedChairProject.com (for credit-card orders)Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times