Rep’s opener is riveting, timely on TV, politics


The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has launched its 2008-2009 Mainstage series with the American regional theater premiere of playwright Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, directed with deftness and sensitivity by Steven Woolf, The Rep’s artistic director, and featuring standout performances by Keith Jochim as Richard Nixon and Jeff Talbott as David Frost.

The play, appearing on The Rep’s Mainstage through Sept. 28, tells the powerful story behind the unprecedented series of interviews, broadast in 1977, three years after Nixon resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal, which became the most-watched news program in American history and established Frost as a top-tier political interviewer at the same time as he extracted an emotional apology by Nixon for his misconduct in office and betrayal of the American people.


In interviews before the production, Steven Woolf stressed, “This is not just a Nixon-bashing production. We believe it is fair to both Nixon and Frost.” In his program notes, Woolf adds, “Frost/Nixon is a play — not a documentary. Peter Morgan has constructed a wonderful story, but not everything in the play actually happened. Most importantly, the play makes it seem as though the important session on Watergate happened at the end of the interviews and not at the mid-point as was really the case. Nevertheless, the account of the interviews is fully connected to the essence of what went on during the conversations between Frost and Nixon.”

Audience members who insist upon full historical accuracy in political plays might object to the alterations in Morgan’s script. But the placement of the Nixon apology at the end of the presented interviews does make more sense dramatically and does not do violence to history. Another key scene, however, which purports to show a telephone conversation by a drunken Nixon to an amazed Frost on the eve of the key interview does push the envelope in the direction of some of the re-writing of history by filmmaker Oliver Stone in his films about JFK and Nixon. As a piece of theater work, the scene packs a wallop, but historical purists may have a problem with an invented scene when the true story is dramatic enough.

The play also explores the impact of television coverage of political events at a crucial stage in history.

David Frost had been considered a “lightweight entertainer” by “serious” TV journalists like Mike Wallace, who mocked the idea that Frost could land a series of interviews with the reclusive and elusive former President, who loathed the media, which was not overly fond of him.

But Frost indeed rise to the occasion, with the assistance of a team of researchers and preparation which included James Reston, former New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, who wrote four books on Nixon and Watergate. Reston is portrayed in the play by Jim Wisniewski at The Rep, and serves as a kind of narrator during the action.

In today’s highly charged political climate, with TV commentators, especially on cable, becoming more and more openly partisan, matching conservative radio talk show hosts, it is instructive to re-visit how Frost transformed himself from an entertainment interviewer to a serious political interrogator.

Keith Jochim’s portrayal of Richard Nixon is a tour de force. While he is not a spot-on “impersonator” of Nixon, he has mastered the late presidents’s mannerisms, tics, nervous laughs, fierce combativeness and powerful intellect. By the end of the first act, you feel as if you are looking at the “real” Richard Nixon. Jeff Talbott is almost as convincing in his portrayal of David Frost, showing his evolution from purveyor of puff and fluff to becoming a serious journalist.

Richard Nixon is one of the most perplexing presidents in American history. Every few years, surveys are taken of American history and political science professors, asking them to rank our former chief executives as “great, near-great, above average, below average and failures.”

In several responses each year, Nixon is ranked among the “near-great” presidents for his foreign policy sagacity in opening the door to China and effective dealings with the Soviet Union and the Middle East, and as a “failure”, along with Grant and Harding for his abuse of power, obstruction of justice and lying to the American people, which led him to resign in order to escape certain impeachment, conviction and removal from office.

To the American Jewish community, Nixon is also a major puzzlement. On the one hand, the infamous Nixon tapes record numerous anti-Jewish references to “Jew-boys” in the government to Jewish domination of the arts and other disparaging comments about his many political adversaries who were Jewish. On the other hand, Nixon named Henry Kissinger, a German Jewish Holocaust survivor as his secretary of state and most trusted foreign policy advisor; had Jewish staff people and speech writers such as Victor Gold, Leonard Garment and William Safire among his White House circle, and provided life-saving major military assistance to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

None of Nixon’s positive accomplishments justify in any way his betrayal of his office and the American people. But he is not a two-dimensional villain, and he is very easy to underestimate to this very day. Towards’ the end of the play, Nixon praises Frost as a “worthy adversary,” and indeed he was. The two men developed more than a grudging respect for one another, and the Morgan play, as directed by Woolf, with its terrific cast, does justice to this remarkable story.

The Rep’s production of Frost/Nixon is part of the 2008 St. Louis Political Theatre Festival. From August through Nov. 12, diverse St. Louis-area theater companies are presenting 15 productions involving themes of politics and power. In this volatile political campaign season, a good way to unwind is to take in Frost/Nixon and any of the other plays in this unique series, and then have a calm discussion about their themes and ideas. For information on the St. Louis Political Theatre Festival, visit

(Frost/Nixon is appearing on The Mainstage of The Rep through September 28. For more information, including a guide introducing the characters, plot and background on the play, visit The Rep’s comprehensive Web site at For ticket information, call The Rep Box Office, 314-968-4925).