Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
The basic history for Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon is familiar to anyone who was around for the scandal that destroyed the presidency of one man and revived the foundering television career of another.
But the play, which opens the Ti-Ahwaga Community Players’ 2014-15 season, also provides the juicy back story of how Richard Nixon granted post-Watergate/post-pardon interviews to British talk show host David Frost.
In the process, it explores these serious questions, now blurred by the 24-hour news cycle: How can you distinguish news from entertainment? What is the benefit of presenting one as the other? And how does one justify the wisdom of presenting an important news story as fluff?
Also, when does the reporter become a part of the story? And what business does he have insinuating himself into that story, possibly altering the outcome — or perceptions, at the very least?
Depending on the person, turning to an entertainer may be the best hope of finding out the truth about anything — think Jon Stewart or, more recently, John Oliver. Frost was able to extract admissions from Nixon that no one else had been able to obtain. That’s a fact.
Frost/Nixon was produced in 2006 on the London stage and turned into a movie in 2008 by Ron Howard. The film starred Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen, reprising their roles from both the London and Broadway stage productions. The Ti-Ahwaga show, which runs through Oct. 12, features the believable Shawn Yetter as Nixon and the cool, as in GROO-VY, Jamie Cornell as Frost.
Both of these very good actors could easily overplay their role, producing nothing but exaggerated impersonations. Neither, thankfully, give in to that impulse. If anything, Cornell’s British accent is barely detectable in spots, but as you get into the rhythm of the dialogue you can be convinced that he is Frost and Yetter is Nixon.
Supporting the title characters are Shane Smith as Frost’s hired consultant, Jim Reston, and William Clark Snyder as Nixon’s fiercely loyal post-resignation chief of staff, Jack Brennen. That character’s fidelity to Nixon does credit to his Marine Corps code (Semper fi), and Snyder belts out his opinions without sounding strident.
Doing double duty as BBC director John Birt and, to a lesser extent, another supporting character, Ollie, is Micah Ness.
Joining this excellent cast, also in a dual role, first as Nixon’s smarmy agent, Swifty Lazar, and then as Frost’s 60 Minutes journalistic rival, Mike Wallace, is Joe Schmieg. He does a creditable job with each character, with the assistance of a large pair of glasses for the former and a pretty bad toupéefor the latter.
Joan Anderson is Frost’s high-flying hookup, the serenely sophisticated Caroline Cushing. Her British accent is perfect, aristocratic and very precise. Diane Arbes’ costumes, especially Anderson’s palazzo pants, are spot-on for the 1970s time period.
Stan Zawatsky is also great as Bob Zelnick, the executive editor of the interviews that saved Frost from obscurity.
Young Shannon McManus is fine in small turns as tennis great Yvonne Goolagong and as a stewardess, a waitress and a TV studio technician. She has little or nothing to say but has excellent stage presence. Expect to see more of her on the Ti-Ahwaga stage in the future.
Under James Osborne’s direction, this cast does a terrific job evoking this important moment in American and British history. Frost/Nixon is one of the best local productions I have attended in a while, and I urge you to go see it, especially if, like me, you are a political and news junkie.
IF YOU GO: Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 12 at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center, 42 Delphine St., Owego. For ticket information or to get directions to the theater, call 607-687-2130, or visit www.tiahwaga.com.