Forty-five million people watched the first episode of a five-part interview David Frost conducted with former president Richard Nixon in 1977, three years after Nixon left office in disgrace. It is still the most widely viewed political interview in world history.
Strawberry Theatre Workshop's production of Peter Morgan's play Frost/Nixon, which runs at 12th Avenue Arts through February 17, goes behind the scenes of the interview and reveals all the greasy wheeling and dealing both parties engaged in in order to... do what, exactly? Reveal the truth? Perform the revelation of truth? Assassinate the already resigned president? Give him the sword and let him do the work?
Over the course of the two-hour play, which flies right by—no intermission—we watch Frost transform from playboy talk-show host to respected journalist. At the same time, Nixon transforms from a disgraced public servant looking to revive his career into a classic figure from Greek tragedy: a man whose mad desire to save himself ends up causing him to destroy himself.
But in director Greg Carter's production, there are no "playboys" or "men" onstage. All the actors are women, a choice that productively enhances the material because it shines new light on the president's crimes.
Amy Thone, winner of a 2007 Stranger Genius Award, turns in a masterful performance as Nixon. She reproduces his barking charm, smiles his sly smile, moves in his rigid way, and, best of all, she isn't afraid to mumble. Nixon was a morose mumbler as much as he was a booming narcissist, and Thone completely embodies that paradoxical dynamic.
Alexandra Tavares plays Frost with verve and nuance. She's got his pointed gestures and his trademark barreling delivery down, but she's also able to project his unstoppable optimism and self-assurance, qualities that made Frost so likable—and weirdly more American in spirit than British.
The conceit of this production is more than just an opportunity to hire a lot of women actors for good dramatic roles. The choice to cast all women does a service to the story. Having a woman play Nixon—visibly as a woman—doesn't allow the audience to dismiss the president's cunning and cruelty as an unfortunate side effect of his masculinity. We're trained to believe that ambition is good and that it's an intrinsic part of manliness. Having a woman actor say stuff like "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal" denies Nixon any built-in sympathy. He's not just a guy being a guy. He's a power-hungry, self-serving boss who abused his power in order to protect his friends.
Frost/Nixon reminds us of the era when politics first became something that happens on TV. Sadly, you watch it knowing that Trump will never offer us the consolations Nixon did. Nixon admitted wrongdoing and apologized. We'll get none of that from Trump, no matter what. Frost/Nixon under Trump thus serves as a way to measure how far down the dark pit our democracy has descended.
But hey, the acting is great!