The Heights Players prides itself on its intimacy, and that couldn’t be more evident in its current production of “Frost/Nixon.”
When the play opened on Broadway five years ago, its staging employed dozens of TV screens to show close-ups of the actor’s faces for audience members in the cheap seats. Not here. The Players’ production relies on the performances and intimate setting to bring the audience in. And though both have their moments, the end result is mixed. Thanks to the strength of Peter Morgan’s script, “Frost/Nixon” is a largely enjoyable, at times gripping delight, even for non-political junkies, though it’s often bogged down by the heavy-handed delivery of that material and one key production flaw.
The play is a fictionalized account of the 1977 showdown between Richard Nixon, fresh off his pardon, and British journalist David Frost. After unique personal failures, both yearn to be major players again, and their interview holds the key, if only for one man. In this David-and-Goliath setup, mere “talk show host” Frost appears to be the clear underdog to the seasoned Nixon, who had battled interviewers before on such subjects as divergent as Vietnam, Watergate, and a dog named Checkers.
Director Steve Velardi clearly considered that dynamic in his effective staging — it’s a boxing match without gloves. In one corner, you have Nixon’s camp — the ex-president, his chief of staff, and smarmy agent. In the other, there’s Frost, his producer, woman, and “crackpot” team of investigators. Whether they’re at Nixon’s California home or at the TV studio, they never cross sides.
Like the best Nixon performances, Jason Hewitt’s doesn’t lend itself to caricature. He does one two-armed “Victory” shot that’s obviously played for laughs, but other than that, his Nixon embodies the brashness and gravitas of the man. Jere Williams is appropriately goofy and showy as Frost, a toothy smile almost constantly planted on his face, though he exudes depth and empathy.
Despite these strong performances, the production suffers at times from over-acting and heavy-handedness, especially in the narration by Reston, played by Michael Nigro. And a particularly powerful moment from Hewitt, where Nixon drunkenly calls Frost on the night before their last interview, was the type of tour de force performance better suited for a larger space, and would have been more effective turned down a notch. The otherwise swift show was also interrupted by an intermission added simply to sell concessions, it seems.
The play’s ending should be no spoiler — Frost emerged the victor, getting a confession from Nixon. As mentioned earlier, this staging forgoes any props to aid the story, instead relying on intimacy. Though as Reston’s narration highlights the look of defeat on Nixon’s face and the “reductive power of the close-up” during this climatic moment, I couldn’t tell you how powerful that close-up was. With the audience seated on all four sides of the stage, I was unfortunate enough to be seated behind Nixon, deprived of that catharsis. Intimacy wasn’t enough.
“Frost/Nixon” at the Heights Players [26 Willow Pl. between State and Joralemon streets in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 237-2752], through Feb. 20; Fridays–Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets $15. For info, visit www.heightsplayers.org.