Saturday, May 25, 2024

Theater Review: “Frost/Nixon” at Maltz Jupiter

In her curtain speech before last night’s opening of “Frost/Nixon” at Maltz Jupiter Theatre, Director of Development Pam Dyar promised us “one of the greatest boxing matches of all time.” Yes, but do we need to endure so much exhaustive pre-fight banter?

Peter Morgan’s 2006 bio-play about the epochal 1977 interviews between British talk-show host David Frost and a post-resignation Richard Nixon is never better than when its titular competitors sit in comfy chairs under hot and harsh lights, separated only by a table and a pitcher of water, and verbally bob and weave, hook and counterpunch. But the play is as quick at getting to the point as, well … an artfully dodging politician with his back against the wall.

It’s hard to get around the dramatic hurdle that before the “boxers” hit the ring, we get an hour of thrill-less preamble. Competing narrators from the Frost and Nixon camps wax exposition, incidental characters are introduced and then mostly jettisoned, unnecessary meetings commence in unnecessary scenes.

Thankfully, director J. Barry Lewis utilizes every color in his tech-design palette to streamline a plodding script. He shuttles us briskly from one scene to another with an array of clicks, pops, whooshes and other onomatopoeic elements from sound designer Marty Mets, whose transitions echo the relentless forward motion of cable news broadcasts. Set designer Anne Mundell’s bank of 12 television screens reinforce this sense of mass-media ubiquity while providing projection designer Brad Peterson a visual playground for the multitude of scene changes, from a London theater to the interior of a Pan Am plane to Nixon’s California villa to the “60 Minutes” studio.

The ostensible reason for so much lede-burying business is to further bold-face and underline the thesis that’s evident in every poster of “Frost/Nixon:” that the elitist U.K. celebrity and the conservative American ex-president are two sides of the same coin, the yin to the other’s yang, both scraping the bottom of career barrels and desperate for a little daylight. Holding the thematic highlighters are a bounty of fine and un-showy South Florida actors providing yeoman’s supporting roles—including Wayne LeGette as zealous muckraker James Reston Jr., Kenneth Kay as the more moderate journalist Bob Zelnick, Dave Scotti as the unctuous agent Swifty Lazar, and Jim Ballard as Nixon’s true-believing chief of staff, Jack Brennan.

But the play’s ultimate success or failure falls, naturally, on the shoulders of its title fighters. Peter Simon Hilton’s foppish Frost and John Jellison’s humanized Nixon both channel their characters’ waning self-importance, with a propensity to tell jokes that only amuse themselves. But Jellison wins on points for his ragged charisma, traversing a 40-year history of mimicry and caricature and emerging with something that looks, sounds and feels authentic. Only his introductory scene is a little arch, wandering into Jimmy Stewart territory. Otherwise, his hunched shoulders, stooped gait and birdlike movements embody the disgraced leader in exile, likewise his studiedly unpolished delivery, full of meandering ellipses. An ornery charmer for most of the production, Jellison is also adept at channeling Nixon’s potty-mouthed id, as evidenced by one of the play’s key scenes—a drunken dial to Frost’s hotel room. Lewis and Jellison expertly stage this emotionally naked dialogue like a Shakespearean soliloquy: Hilton all but disappears from the stage, with Nixon submerged in an unforgiving spotlight at center stage, verbally logorrheic but physically and emotionally frozen.

Finally, the interviews begin, and it’s the theatrical tour de force we’ve been waiting for. Without rising from their seats, the actors assume a spectrum of battle poses, from attack to surrender, their gestures and posture offering plenty of fodder for body-language experts. Lewis extends the boxing metaphor to the interview breaks, where the opponents retreat to their corners for a dry towel and encouragement from their managers. The onstage flat-screens offer competing camera angles, allowing spectators even in the back rows to analyze Hilton and Jellison’s every facial tic. It’s an intimate Q&A rendered on the scale of a Madison Square Garden main event, realizing the reason for “Frost/Nixon’s” existence.

That it takes a while to get there is an undeniable hazard for any company producing this play. But as with Frost, who suffered hours of Nixon’s filibustering before finally grilling him on Watergate and making history, patience is a virtue.

“Frost/Nixon” runs through Feb. 21 at Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Tickets start at $55. Call 561/575-2223 or visit jupitertheatre.org.

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