An unforgettable interview

Long before Larry King and Oprah, the political celebrity interview was defined by David Frost's interview with Richard Nixon in 1977. "Frost/Nixon," by Peter Morgan, playing at Camelot Theatre Company through May 30, is a peek behind the scenes of this verbal cage match.

David Frost was a good-looking, intellectual lightweight who had made his mark on American, British and Australian television by a little cheeky journalism and a lot of smarm. Richard Nixon was a disgraced American president brought low by the scandals of Watergate, the president who resigned rather than face impeachment.

This was in the mid-'70s, when television journalists actually asked hard questions in their interviews and didn't allow their guests to say blatantly false or stupid things without zinging a follow-up question at them. When Frost approached Nixon for a series of exclusive interviews, it wasn't only the outrageous money that made the offer attractive. All Nixon's handlers thought this would be a puff piece, a slam dunk to rehabilitate the president's image, get him back in the game.

Frost, with a career on the skids, saw the interview as a coup that would get him back into the limelight and establish some journalistic credibility.

"Frost/Nixon" is the story of the negotiations and jockeying before the interviews and the ultimate confrontation between the two men that remade one reputation and finally destroyed the other.

Director Doug Warner deftly employs a number of Camelot Theatre regulars to bring this all to life, along with some of the most effective stage design Camelot has ever used. It is a totally professional production, the equivalent of the best theater you can see in San Francisco or Seattle.

Warner cast Paul R. Jones as Nixon. Jones has the immense burden of limning this difficult man — dour, stiff, uncomfortable in his own skin. Jones deftly turns the role into a consummate performance, not merely a caricature.

Jones is matched by John Litton as Frost. Litton's Frost is dead on with the man's ingratiating brashness shot with glimmers of edgy insecurity.

Frost and Nixon have entourages with their own axes to grind. The liberal journalist Jim Reston (Bruce Lorange) wants nothing less than a confession from Nixon and an apology. Nixon's loyal aide Jack Brennan (Michael Meyer) wants desperately to protect the man before he is irrevocably broken. Brennan and Reston are narrators to the action and the Reston/Brennan conflict — Lorange's chattiness contrasting with Meyer's formality — simmers just below the main action, providing an effective counterpoint to the battle on center stage.

Frost has Reston, a British producer named John Birt (Roy Rains) and an American producer named Bob Zelnick (Bob Jackson Miner). He also has a trendy, connected girlfriend, Caroline Cushing (Cat Gould), who inadvertently serves as an icebreaker with his diffident subject.

Nixon relies on Brennan, on protective aide/servant Manolo Sanchez (Grant Shepherd) and, in a particularly hilarious star turn by Jeff Golden, a canny literary agent named Swifty Lazar. Golden may be taller, with more hair, and lots better looking than the legendary Swifty ever was, but he has the mannerisms and accent down pat.

Camelot went for broke in this production, utilizing two immense television screens and a backdrop screen as the focus of the set, projecting still photos and video to establish time and place as well as commentary to the action on stage.

Warner collaborated closely with technical designer Brian O'Connor, lighting designer Bart Grady and scenic designer Don Zastoupil to come up with a production design that brings the show to a slick, hip level. The '70s era costumes are by Barbara Rains.

A British playwright and screenwriter, Morgan also wrote the films "The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland." "Frost/Nixon" was a hit in London and New York in 2006 starring Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost and became a movie in 2008 with the same cast.

We all know where the Frost/Nixon interview went, to that famous/infamous quote: "If the president does it, it's not illegal." That finished Nixon off. He never regained political respectability. Frost had his redemption, a brief moment of journalistic incandescence restored, but swiftly faded into has-been celebrity status. He is currently hosting a weekly current events show called "Frost Over the World" on Al-Jazeera English television.

But that brief burst of fireworks remains in "Frost/Nixon." It's an era — and a lesson — of which we need to be reminded. There is no better way of doing so than at Camelot Theatre.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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