“I am not a crook.” The vehemently certain words of Richard Nixon defending his actions during the Watergate Scandal made infamous as one of his taglines throughout the course of history. The chance to determine the validity of that statement is now yours as Greenbelt Arts Center presents Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon. The play inspired by the live interview performed by David Frost of the former President of the United States takes to the stage for the fall season with Director Bob Kleinberg at the helm. A deeply involved political drama this production puts the incident as the nation knows it into perspective.
The technical elements of this production are extremely successful in setting up the arena of the fight. Director Bob Kleinberg opens the show with a ten minute montage of live photographs and eventually video clips of Nixon’s presidency from the time of re-election right up to the moment Dan Rather announces that they are about to go live to the White House to hear his resignation. This clever and extremely well-executed series of projections, underscored by the production’s title role speaking words that the president spoke during such times, is a brilliant vessel that navigates the audience into the history of Nixon and the scandal without bogging them down or boring them. For those who are familiar with the event — it’s a riveting refresher and for those who know little or nothing about it — it is the perfect summary to prepare them for the show ahead.
Lighting Designer Dennis Giblin augments the intense moments of the interviews between the title characters in the second act with his severe shift in focused lighting. The stark contrast of dull full stage lights to the sudden tightly centered bright white interview-style lighting thrusts a force of intensity into those moments that stacks the dramatic emotions of the text to even further epic heights.
The big technical hang-up for the show, however, falls on Dialect Coach Pauline Griller-Mitchell. It has always been my belief that if you are mounting a show where the characters require a specific accent that it either has to be done correctly or should not be done at all. Griller-Mitchell’s work with the characters of David Frost (Kyle McGruther) John Birt (Bill Brekke) and Caroline Cushing (Lacey Zimmerman) leaves something to be desired.
While McGruther manages to at least float the British sound it is horribly muddled, coming across as Australian and South African at times. Brekke’s accent comes and goes like an uncontrollable wind in a storm — there one minute, gone the next and then replaced by a pinched New York sound. And Zimmerman’s accent is so contrived it’s painful to listen to. This becomes an unfortunate tragedy as the actors then shift the focus of their performance to attempting to fix the missteps in their accents rather than on delivering a solid show.
Director Bob Kleinberg mismanages his efforts in the intensity of the two leading males. McGruther presents a subdued character that often lacks conviction even in his arguments during the more intense scenes. Whereas Nixon (Sandy Irving) nailed his performance on the head and essentially carried the show on his shoulders. Kleinberg’s guidance for the cast rippled in this fashion through the supporting cast as well, leaving bland moments from some, and more intense moments from others.
Bob Zelnick (Brian Binney) and Jim Reston (Joe Mariano) are the two strongest supporting actors in the production. Binney’s mimicry of Nixon when helping to prepare for the tapes is a scintillating caricature of the 37th President. And when he blows up with frustrations they build slowly, escalating to a peak rather than jumping straight there. Mariano is equally as fierce during his moments of emotional overload, but does not let his character’s judgments cloud his narration. The rushes of anger that flow from the two of them burble brilliantly both beneath the surface and over the top, creating gripping moments of action during the production.
Winning the hearts of the audience much as the president he’s playing won over the country in his second election, Sandy Irving’s portrayal of Nixon does the iconic man’s legend a great deal of justice. He speaks with a fiery fervor when initially addressing the topic of Watergate, switching like a snap into a more jovial tone with good feelings. He has a driving conviction that justifies every speech he makes, especially when talking about the Cambodian Incursion. He has a solid grounding in his follow through, both vocally and physically never wavering in his energy even when he becomes resigned and defeated in his endeavors. Even during his lowest moments — reminiscing forlornly over the taste of hamburgers — Irving maintains the regal state of the President of the United States. A stunning performance by Irving which captivates the highs and lows of Nixon’s characters in such a way that is beyond flattering.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.