Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon
(© Joan Marcus)
Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon
(© Joan Marcus)
The no-frills title could lead anyone to assume that Frost/Nixon is strictly going to showcase top-billed Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, as former president Richard Nixon and talk show host David Frost, doing little but recreating excerpts from the famous 1977 Frost-Nixon television interviews, in which the disgraced President finally admitted his complicity in the Watergate cover-up that led to his resignation. Impersonations are certainly all I expected when I saw the play at London's Donmar Warehouse some months ago. No way was I prepared for a Shakespearean work about the repercussions of hunger for lost power. But that -- not to mention the best play of the year -- is what I got.

First-time playwright Peter Morgan -- author of the Oscar-winning films The Queen and The Last King of Scotland -- has offered an astonished and astonishing gaze at what transpires when two driven men fight a championship verbal bout where only one man can prevail. If the Broadway production is somewhat less electrifying than it was in London, it's because the small Donmar Warehouse lent the 105-minute intermissionless piece an immediacy it doesn't quite have at the Jacobs, where the larger surroundings and proscenium staging seems to have slightly flattened the drama.

Having been deprived of both his American popularity by the cancellation of his talk show and his regular table at Sardi's, Frost decides that talking to Nixon in front of the cameras will put him back in the international spotlight. Nixon assumes that in batting aside the cream-puff questions he anticipates Frost will ask, he'll show himself to be a misunderstood statesman, welcome once more in the international political whirl. And, thanks to the not-so-good-old-days of checkbook journalism, Nixon will make a pretty penny doing it.

Right off, Morgan establishes stakes that couldn't be much higher -- and then maximizes them in nifty ways. He drops in the touch-and-go problems that Frost, who's being underestimated by advertisers, encounters in raising the capital necessary to launch his project. Morgan further ramps up the excitement by establishing the initial advantages Nixon gets over Frost when they finally dive into the taping. That advantage is maintained until Frost's investigator, writer Jim Reston (Stephen Kunken) -- who's long made it his business to nail Nixon -- comes up with something out of left field that shifts the balance. Incidentally, that discovery leads Nixon to utter a dictum about legality and the Presidency that seems to be guiding the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Watching Frost/Nixon, which has been directed by Michael Grandage with hard-nosed assurance, is like observing an intellectual boxing-match. The early scenes are akin to training-camp workouts, complete with sparring partners. The interviews are a four-round contest with the knockout punch delivered in the fourth round.

Set designer Christopher Oram (who also did the costumes) keeps the stage as bare as an arena, although high above it are television monitors that eventually display the central characters' faces in unforgiving close-ups.

While neither Langella nor Sheen bears a strong resemblance to the actual men they portray, to call their performances bravura is only to hint at the acting heights they scale. Langella not only has the Nixon mannerisms under complete control; he very impressively suggests Nixon's in-and-out sense of humor -- the jokes that land, the ones that don't. When Nixon finally cracks, Langella's body language and face, particularly larger-than-life on those television monitors, is a virtual poem of craggy defeat. For his part, Sheen has assimilated Frost's inflections and behavior, but he's never a walking caricature.

Of the supporting cast, Remy Auberjonois as Frost pal/producer John Birt, Corey Johnson as Nixon's chief of staff, Jack Brennan, Stephen Rowe as uber-agent Swifty Lazar and CBS newsman Mike Wallace, and Sonya Walger as Frost's gal pal Caroline Cushing do the script more than justice. However, the usually outstanding Stephen Kunken lacks the obligatory dynamism for Reston, who narrates the play and is intended to impart much of its urgency with his furious disdain for Nixon.

What Frost/Nixon brilliantly delivers is a figurative battle of heavyweights -- without a jab too many or a hook too few.