It’s been 40 years since former American President Richard Nixon sat down with British television host David Frost for a series of landmark interviews that remain a definitive look into the psyche of one of America’s most disliked presidents.
But the interviews could have easily been a disaster.
They took place three years after Nixon resigned in disgrace as his role in the 1972 break-in into the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate office complex was uncovered.
Initially criticized as “checkbook journalism” because Nixon was paid for his appearance, the interviews packed such a punch that they’ve been dramatized, resulting in a 2006 play “Frost/Nixon,” by Peter Morgan and a 2008 film of the same title.
Few who watched them at the time can forget Richard Nixon’s commentary: “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” a statement that, at the time, seemed the height of incredulity, although in light of recent political news, it doesn’t really seem like so far-fetched of a statement for a president to make.
Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor is embarking this summer on a riveting production of Mr. Morgan’s play, which opened June 26 and continues through July 22.
This production stars Obie and Lucille Lortel Award winner Harris Yulin, who turns in a stunning portrait as Richard Nixon and Obie and Outer Critics Circle Award winner Daniel Gerroll, who winds his way into the former president’s heart, as David Frost.
It is directed by Sarna Lapine, who directed the 2017 Broadway revival of “Sunday in the Park with George,” and who coaxes nuanced and pitch-perfect performances out of her cast.
Mr. Yulin’s portrait of the defeated president is sure to be the talk of the summer in Sag Harbor. He has thoroughly mastered Nixon’s gruff speech patterns and affect, his chip-on-the-shoulder gait and even, it sometimes seems, his manner of perspiration.
Daniel Gerroll’s portrayal of David Frost, more of a performer than a serious journalist, makes a great counterpoint — he can’t help but look like an absurd and superfluous dandy when face to face with one of the most hated men in America.
But it helps that he has an ocean’s worth of distance from his subject matter, which may in the end have been part of the reason he was able to touch Nixon on a human level lacking within the American press corps.
It also helps that the checkbook he brings to his meeting with Nixon is drawn on his own personal bank account.
This play is narrated by a fictitious representation of journalist James “Scotty” Reston, Jr., played by Christian Conn, who, with his sleeves rolled up and his tie loosened, exudes the cigarette-stained American journalistic ethos of the era. As an advisor to Mr. Frost, he wants these interviews to mean more than a chance for Nixon to exonerate himself.
But there’s little he can do to persuade David Frost to ask the hardball questions any American journalist of the era would have asked.
In the end, it was by appealing to Richard Nixon’s humanity that David Frost managed to coax an apology out of the president.
Caught up in the hubris of his ambitious foreign policy work and his belief he was doing the right thing in Vietnam, Mr. Yulin portrays a man so convinced of his own good intentions that he can’t fathom the disgust he engenders amongst his own countrymen. In the end, it took a man from another country to hold up a mirror and show him what his country really saw in its disgraced leader.
Outside the Washington Beltway, it could be easy for an audience to glaze over when replaying the stuff of 40-year-old political drama, but this production doesn’t let that happen.
It’s helped along by innovative staging involving 15 projections of live cameras trained on the subjects throughout the interview, enabling the audience to see both men, up close and as warm and personal as the convex screen of a 20th Century television set.
We couldn’t see through the standing ovation whether Mr. Yulin gave Nixon’s famous victory salute at the close of the performance.
“Frost/Nixon” will be performed on Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m, with 2 p.m. matinées on Wednesdays and Sundays through July 22. Tickets range from $40 to $135, and can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 631.725.9500 or online at www.baystreet.org.
The theater will offer “Talkback Tuesdays” with members of the cast on Tuesdays July 3, July 10, and July 17 immediately following the performances.