A few months ago, TimeLine Theatre gave Chicago audiences a compelling history on the advent of television with The Farnsworth Invention (read my thoughts on that production here). And now, Peter Morgan’s provocative Frost/Nixon demonstrates the power of this revolutionary invention in practice 40 years later.
Ah. Corruption. Greed. Scandal. A tell-all interview. This is the stuff ratings are made of. It’s amazing, then, that David Frost, the popular playboy television host from England, had such difficulties securing financial backing for his 1977 interviews with a recently-resigned and Watergated Richard Nixon.
No one took Frost seriously as a credible opponent for the formidable former president, which resulted in networks refusing to purchase the program. But Frost had something to prove. He was more than just the guy who interviews Abba and parties at night with movie stars; he wanted to expand his image to that of a hard-nosed interviewer who asks the tough questions.
Nixon also had something to prove – he expected the Frost interviews to be a platform to exonerate himself.
Both were unprepared for how things really went down during the taping of these four 90-minute interviews – which became a milestone of television history, drawing in a record-breaking 45 million viewers.
Morgan’s play, which explores the drama that unfolded behind the scenes leading up to and during these interviews, was a hit on Broadway and eventually made into a film. I’ve seen neither version prior to TimeLine’s fantastic, lean production. As Frost, Andrew Carter conveys just the right blend of charisma, drive and arrogance. And the imposing Terry Hamilton has the impossible task of drawing empathy while portraying someone who’s basically an icon for corruption. But he does, thanks in large part to Morgan’s even-handed script. It’s a phenomenal performance, and Carter and Hamilton play off each other like two bulls in a ring. Supporting players are equally great.
Director Louis Contey keeps the action fluid, making the interview segments feel like you’re actually there: intense and uncomfortable. Live video of the interviews on TV screens flanking the stage and projected on the upstage wall remind us that we’re watching history being captured before us.
I’m not a political or history buff, but I was riveted throughout the intermissionless 1 hour, 50 minute play. See it.
“Frost/Nixon” plays through Oct. 10 at TimeLine Theatre Company. More info here >