It’s been said that American voters get the president they deserve. For those who require motivation to exercise their democratic right — some would say duty — in an election year, “Frost/Nixon” serves as history’s nudge.
EastLine Productions, a tiny but ambitious Wantagh theater company, presents this 2006 Peter Morgan play as the opener in its two-part presidential lesson plan. (Next up: Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” a fictional account of the 1960 primaries resulting in John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon’s nominations.)
“Frost/Nixon,” which starred Michael Sheen and Frank Langella on Broadway, tells the story of the three-year odyssey from Nixon’s resignation to David Frost’s TV interviews with the disgraced former president. It was, at the time (1977), the “get” of the century.
Director Patrick Finn anchors this uneven production with credible performances in the dual title roles. Although John J. Steele Jr.’s Nixon borders on caricature, especially early on, he delivers when it counts in psychologically revealing scenes, including (spoiler alert) the Watergate-confessional denouement.
Ken Young as Frost strikes the right balance between ambition and obsession in his pursuit of Nixon. You see Young flinch, not too obviously, every time someone refers to his character as mere “talk-show host.” In the final interview scene, he leans in toward slumping Nixon, building momentum in the televised trial the president never faced.
It’s a moment worth savoring, though it helps to be familiar with such names as Hunt and Colson that are dropped as if everyone had read Woodward and Bernstein.
Among supporting players, Rita Wallace adds mystery as the woman Frost picks up on his flight to Los Angeles for his first meeting with Nixon. Her presence prompts Nixon to wonder aloud what it’s like to enjoy yourself at a party. Ravi Tawney as Nixon’s post-resignation chief of staff epitomizes military-style loyalty, right down to the haircut. Others are less convincing. Allen Winter as James Reston Jr., son of the New York Times legend, is sneeringly bombastic, shouting his lines as if volume equates conviction. But he’s not helped by the show’s most glaring failure. No lighting design is credited in the program, nor is any deserved. No one, apparently, can aim a spotlight. When it finds the target, such as Winter/Reston’s spectacles, the reflection is nearly blinding.