‘Frost/Nixon’ at The Vagabond Players by Amanda Gunther

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“…Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow.” Those words that shook a nation when uttered from 37th President of the United States Richard Nixon are now coming to life as The Vagabond Players continue their 96th season with the production of Frost/Nixon. The compelling political drama based on the post-presidential interviews performed by David Frost with Richard Nixon as the sole interviewee come to the stage as the Baltimore Area premier of this play by Peter Morgan under the direction of Steve Goldklang. For those that lived it the production is a harrowing reenactment of one of America’s most crucial political moments. And for those that did not live it the show provides a glimpse into history as it was being made.

Frost and Nixon Meet. Left to Right: Richard Nixon (Jeff Murray), Jack Brennan (Tom Moore), John Birt (Joel Ottenheimer), David Frost (Michael Zemarel), and Jim Reston (Eric C. Stein). Photo by Ken Stanek.

Director Steve Goldklang has chosen two perfect actors for the title roles. Their appearances are very close to their real life counter parts, their voices sound almost the same, and their mannerisms are matched to perfection. The show itself is plotted perfectly, each person in their place at all times, every man having a spot to stand on, every movement deliberate. And the most effectual presentation of this execution are the freeze frames between narrations. The two main narrators Jim Reston (Eric C. Stein) and Jack Brennan (Tom Moore) take turns interrupting the on-stage action. The scene is paused mid action when Moore or Stein step forward to speak and what is frozen behind them could be a photograph. No one is blinking, moving, the actors don’t even appear to be breathing. I’ve never seen a more perfect use of freeze-frame in live theatre. This creates a sense of nostalgia; as if the audience were looking back through photographs of the event while someone tells the story of how it all happened.

When the show opens the Oval Office is being prepared for Nixon (Jeff Murray) to go live with his resignation speech. From the moment Murray steps onto the stage you see within him the ghost of the man himself; the navy blue suit, the firm brow, the set eyes. And then you hear him; the deep gruff sound of Murray’s voice so similar to the former President that you’d almost swear it was him come back from the grave to deliver the address. Murray strikes the signature pose, the peace-victory stance and the resemblance is uncanny. His mannerisms and gestures are identical to those seen in live footage of the President and his speeches are intoned with the same perseverance. He portrays a strong man, but a man who is not without his weaknesses.

We see two stunning contrasts in Murray’s portrayal of Nixon; the first when he is confined to his wheelchair in the rehab center. A vulnerable creature, a diminished shell of the once proud and strong-minded man is reflected here at his weakest moment. And again toward the end of the show we see this faded man of former glory reflected in Murray’s eyes, the way he slouches, the softened tone of his voice; creating a mere mortal man from legend for everyone to see.

David Frost (Michael Zemarel, left) interviews Richard Nixon (Jeff Murray). Photo by Ken Stanek.

Michael Zemarel takes on the challenging role of David Frost. As the popular TV show host, Zemarel captures his British essence through use of the proper dialect and slightly standoffish manner. His charming personality is clouded with that slightly greasy feeling; a man who is out for himself, displayed in his sideward glances and pensive gazes; the wheels turning in his mind evidenced in his facial expressions. Zemarel has moments of utter smug self-righteousness when confronting the others on his side of the project. When facing off against Reston (Stein) and Bob Zelnick (Todd Krickler) he does so with an arrogant confidence, his head held high his eyes cool and calculating. Krickler deserves a nod for his impeccable impersonation of Nixon during rehearsals for the interviews. He sounds just as one might expect an over-exaggerated version of the President to sound – an aural caricature.

Surprisingly enough the most heated arguments do not always come from Frost and Nixon. During preparations for these interviews the four assigned to the project from Frost’s side heat up over how they will open the interview, with which question will they curve ball the President into answering. This scene lets all of the composed men who have been nothing to the contrary up until this point blow their cool and vocally explode. John (Joel Ottenheimer) Stein, Krickler and Zemarel all begin a heated debate over who has the best approach, building the tension in this already high-strung show. And despite the desperate need of this group of men to paint Nixon into the role of the villain, Murray remains every calm and presently focused in his interview chair, letting his rambling words guide him to victory as a good man.

This show is powerful, thoroughly well-acted and you don’t even notice how long it is by the time it ends. It’s the must see political drama of the season, especially if you’ve never had the opportunity to see Richard Nixon’s interviews. Go cast your judgment, ordinary man who made mistakes or diabolical political villain — seeing Frost/Nixon is the only way you can weigh in for sure.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, with no intermission.

Frost/Nixon plays through May 13, 2012 at The Vagabond Players – 806 S. Broadway, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 563-9135, or purchase them online.