High-stakes combat

Blue Room’s Frost/Nixon is a powerful staging of historic encounter

David Davalos plays Richard Nixon (with Kelly Houston as Jack Brennan in background) in the Blue Room’s Frost/Nixon.

David Davalos plays Richard Nixon (with Kelly Houston as Jack Brennan in background) in the Blue Room’s Frost/Nixon.

Photo by Joe Hilsee

Frost/Nixon, now showing at the Blue Room, Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., through Aug. 12.
Tickets: $15
Blue Room Theatre
139 W. First St.

‘No holds barred.”

That phrase pops up often in Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan’s 2006 play about the nearly 30 hours of interviews ex-President Richard Nixon gave to British talk show host David Frost in 1977, three years after resigning his office in disgrace. Both men approached the encounter as history-making high-stakes intellectual combat.

For Frost it was an opportunity to establish himself as a world-class television interviewer, something that had narrowly eluded him because of his reputation in some circles as a party boy more comfortable interviewing celebrities than powerful politicians. He knew that if he could get Nixon finally to admit his illegal involvement in the Watergate coverup and apologize to the American people, it would be one of the greatest coups in American television history.

It was also a way for Frost to recoup his financial investment, some $2 million, of which $600,000 plus a share of the profits went to Nixon.

For Nixon, who had not yet given a post-resignation interview, this was an opportunity to get out from under the Watergate cloud and call attention to what he saw as the many accomplishments of his tenure, beginning with the opening to China. He was eager to leave his self-imposed exile in San Clemente and rejoin the East Coast world of power politics, where his experience and intelligence would be appreciated.

The play, which is now receiving a sterling performance in Chico’s Blue Room Theatre, resonates with foreshadowings of the scandals currently mushrooming in our nation’s capital. Its most famous line, “I’m saying that when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal,” hits even harder today than it did in 1977.

As its title suggests, the play centers around the two men, so a production’s quality hinges on the actors portraying them. Fortunately, they are played here by Joe Hilsee, as Frost, and David Davalos, as Nixon, both skilled actors who give commanding performances.

Davalos’ Nixon, fired up for the interviews, shows the slippery charisma and potent intelligence that enabled this West Coast son of the lower middle class to outsmart the East Coast elite and twice win election to the highest post in the land. And Hilsee’s Frost is at once a preening popinjay born for the camera and a study in courage and determination.

Davalos and Hilsee are a couple of scenery-chewers, appropriately so in this case, but fortunately the actors backing them up are just as good in their smaller roles. Allen Lunde plays Jim Reston, a widely known journalist who, along with investigative reporter Bob Zelnick (Sean Green), formed Frost’s research team. It was Reston who, poring over transcripts of the White House tapes, found a previously unnoticed but brutally incriminating conversation between Nixon and resident thug Charles Colson. When Frost challenged his opponent to deny that he had intended to buy off potential witnesses, it was like a blow to Nixon’s gut that sucked the air out of the man.

Other noteworthy performances include Rob Wilson as John Birt, Frost’s producer; Dave Sorensen in a delightful characterization of Irving “Swifty” Lazar, Nixon’s agent; Kelly Houston as Nixon’s hyper-protective chief of staff, Jack Brennan; and Suzanne Pappini as Caroline Cushing, Frost’s girlfriend at the time. Credit should also go to director Roger Montalbano and his tech crew for their economical but powerful staging.

If you’re as appalled (and/or fascinated) by the D.C. circus as I am, you will enjoy this play. It’s spot-on.