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FROST/NIXON at Irish Classical is a “remember when” but also an “OMG, isn’t this happening all over again?” moment

THE BASICS:  FROST/NIXON, the 2006 play by British dramatist Peter Morgan, presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company, directed by Brian Cavanagh, starring Jack Hunter as former President Richard Nixon and Adriano Gatto as talk show host David Frost, opened on March 1 and runs through March 24, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 7:30, and Sunday afternoons at 2 at the ICTC’s home, the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main Street (across Main from Shea’s). (853-ICTC). Full service bar, pretzels. Runtime: 2 hours, 20 minutes with one intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  It’s 1977, three years after the Watergate scandal, and jet-setter, playboy, and former host of the political/satirical “That Was the Week that Was” television show, genial British talk show host David Frost needs to make a bold television gesture to resurrect his career. Meanwhile, having made his 1974 televised resignation speech and having been pardoned for his crimes by his succeeding President, former V.P. Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon knows that the taint of disgrace over Vietnam, the illegal invasion of Cambodia, and the Watergate scandal will doom any chance to return to Washington in any capacity unless he can win back the American people. So both men have something big to gain from a series of conversations that will be edited into four televised interviews set up and personally financed at great financial risk by David Frost. History has its eyes on these two, and they know it. Nixon is cagey, thinks like a lawyer, and almost two decades after the disastrous broadcast debate with JFK, has learned a thing or two about TV. Frost, however, lives in the world of television and intuitively knows the power of the close-up and the long pause.

L-R Adriano Gatto, Jack Hunter (background), Renee Landrigan

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: There couldn’t be a better time for this play about a Republican President who was surrounded by operatives of questionable moral and ethical standards, who found himself enmeshed in a web of lies trying to cover up scandal, a President facing impeachment, hounded by a special prosecutor determined to reveal all. At the same time, it’s a lesson of the power of television in the hands of a master. Back then it was the master of comedy skits and talk show interviews David Frost. But it invites us to think about a current master of so-called “reality shows” such as “The Apprentice” as well as social media, particularly Twitter. The lesson is the same then and now: “he who controls the medium controls the message.”

Ominous parallels aside, this play is great fun, I would imagine more for the Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) who lived through these turbulent times.  But through narration, mostly by the (real life) character Jim Reston, along with good scene-setting dialog, everybody can follow the action. (Clarification note: This Jim Reston, Frost’s advisor on Watergate matters, is the son of James “Scotty” Reston, the N.Y. Times columnist.) Everyone on stage is a real, named historical character, although there are a few ensemble roles (TV make-up artist, Studio Floor Producer).

The A-list cast was greatly aided and abetted by Costume Designer Kari Drozd and Hair & Make-up Designer Susan Drozd. Every actor will tell you that getting into the right costume, wig, and make-up really helps you to get into the character. For this play, the always excellent Drozd sisters have really outdone themselves in re-creating the 1970s. In case you were wondering, though, these are not parodies of famous historical figures, nor are they slavish imitations, but they are so convincingly well done, that one can very willingly suspend disbelief, as you can see in this little trailer.

Ray Boucher as “Swifty Lazar” shows off his costume by Kari Drozd, hair and make-up by Susan Drozd

Buffalo favorite Jack Hunter has been in Los Angeles in TV and film for a number of years, and it’s great to have this three-time Artie Award winning actor back on a local stage. As is true of all professions, there is a certain indefinable gravitas that comes from working over the years in different employment settings, or for actors, on multiple stages, and this cast has shown their mettle in a variety of houses. Having nothing to prove, they were entirely ready to be subsumed by their roles, and even though they played well known historical figures, we in the audience were entirely ready to believe them.

The Frost Side: Adriano Gatto plays the many sides of David Frost in an understated manner, allowing us to see Frost’s confidence and vulnerability, his inner strength and his fear. Adam Yellen is the sincere, somewhat nerdy Jim Reston who has been called in by Frost as consultant on the Watergate questions, and Yellen also has to blend the many sides to this highly intelligent writer who now finds himself in the unfamiliar world of television. Matt Witten plays a man in the middle, Bob Zelnick, the executive editor of the 1977 interviews who was painfully aware of Frost’s previous softball 1968 interviews with Nixon, and doesn’t want to see a repeat of that. And neither does John Birt, the producer, played in a wonderfully understated way by David Lundy, whom you probably won’t recognize with his Robert Redford red wig. The only woman cast in this play is Renée Landrigan, who briefly plays Caroline Cushing, a Frost love interest, and doubles as the make-up artist on the TV set.

The Nixon Side: Peter Palmisano plays the very upright, controlled, but just-as-conniving-as-Tricky-Dick former Chief of Staff Jack Brennan who, in tandem with the sleazy Hollywood Agent (is that redundant?) Swifty Lazar, works out the financial details of the meeting, which are very advantageous to Nixon. In one telling aside, Nixon, seeing some chemistry between Frost and Cushing, advises Frost to marry her. Why? Because she lives in a state which has a lower income tax rate.

Now is the time in this review to admire the work of director Brian Cavanagh who got all these talented actors on stage, each of whom can command an audience, in a play fraught with the primary emotions of fear and greed and it could have degenerated into a lot of shouting matches. But it doesn’t. The energy rises, and it cools off, it rises, and it cools off.

It’s been a great season for the Irish Classical, and for Buffalo theater in general; FROST/NIXON is another in a long line of recent successes.

Lead Image: Photo credit:  Gene Witkowski Caption: (L-R) Adriano Gatto as David Frost faces off with Jack Hunter as Richard Nixon 

WHAT’S NEXT: HAMLET directed by Kate LoConti Alcocer

April 26 to May 19, starring Anthony Alcocer as the melancholy Dane, with Matt Witten as his duplicitous uncle Claudius, and Kristen Tripp Kelley as his unfaithful mother, Gertrude.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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