WHERE Bay Street Theater, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor
INFO From $40; 631-725-9500, baystreet.org
BOTTOM LINE A fascinating look at how David Frost pulled off those famous interviews.
Two men with careers in serious need of rehab go head to head in “Frost/Nixon,” Peter Morgan's timely, compelling play that comes to Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor at a fraught moment in presidential history.
It’s impossible to watch this behind-the-scenes look at David Frost's 1977 interviews with former President Richard M. Nixon and not let your mind wander to issues embroiling the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Fake news, immigration, the investigation into Russia’s election meddling — they almost make Watergate (a "third-rate burglary," as the play puts it) seem trivial.
And yet the nation was riveted by those interviews, and years later by Morgan's 2006 play (and the movie that followed two years later) with its insider look at the intricate machinations involved in pulling them off. Bay Street gives the work, directed by Sarna Lapine, a fascinating, thought-provoking production, its intimate setting offering a fly-on-the-wall perspective that envelops the audience in the action.
Daniel Gerroll is a fine Frost, offering a tightly wound portrayal of a party-loving raconteur on the edge, his downward-spiraling TV ratings forcing him to put everything on the line to go up against the big boys. (There's a brief appearance by Mike Wallace, played by Stephen Lee Anderson, who doubles as Nixon's agent Swifty Lazar.) Harris Yulin gives us a conflicted Nixon (with all the appropriate mannerisms and the receding hairline), so desperate for redemption he convinces himself the celebrity-pandering talk-show host will be no match. We see much of this through the eyes of Jim Reston (Christian Conn), the journalist and Frost adviser who serves as a narrator of sorts, pulling together the details of the complicated negotiations that were often perilously in danger of falling through.
Morgan makes clear that, as in his other well-known works (the film "The Queen" and most recently the Netflix series "The Crown"), he's taking liberties with some facts. So that late-night phone call a drunken Nixon made to Frost? Never happened. What did happen, of course, is that on that final day of taping, Frost's team (most notably Reston) got what it was after. The man who had been forced to resign the presidency but never really expressed any regrets offered the closest thing he could to an apology. "I let the American people down," he tells Frost.
But that's not the line that drew gasps from the audience the night I attended. It was the comment from Nixon, made just moments earlier. "I'm saying that when the President does it, that means it's not illegal."