Richard Nixon really works up a sweat in "Frost/Nixon." When the former president agreed to do a series of television interviews with David Frost in 1977, he had reason to perspire during that English interviewer's questions about Watergate. You'll be pulled into that political history by a Vagabond Players production that reproduces the wary give-and-take between the disgraced politician and the ratings-hungry TV journalist.
Peter Morgan's "Frost/Nixon" was an unlikely success on Broadway in 2007, because restaging an old scandal in a talk show format could have resulted in a static podium for theatrical bombast. Instead, the one-on-one confrontation between Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost made for a tense night at the New York theater; these actors repeated their roles in the well-received 2008 movie version.
At first glance, the two actors playing Nixon and Frost in the Vagabond production don't bear much physical resemblance to their real-life characters. They seem more convincing as the evening goes on, however, and you'll almost forget any initial reservations. Although both actors occasionally struggle with their lines, it seems likely they'll settle into playing these unsettling roles.
As Nixon, Jeff Murray clearly has studied that distinctive presidential voice and made it his own. He also adopts the pugnacious and self-pitying character traits of a politician who, ironically, did not feel comfortable around other people. Murray's jowly face seems more and more Nixonian as the series of televised interviews continues and, yes, the actor sweats enough to merit the handkerchief that Nixon conceals just outside of the camera eye.
As Frost, Michael Zemarel takes awhile to fully inhabit the English accent and high-flying habits of a TV celebrity host. Much as Frost confronted his lightweight reputation and became a more incisive debater by the final televised segment, Zemarel eventually more or less makes the role his own.
One reason why it takes some time for these two actors to really ignite on stage is that the play itself takes its time setting the stage for the central confrontation. Although the brief scenes into which the entire play is broken up generally move at a fairly brisk pace, the early scenes tend to mull over the same basic situation, namely, that Frost and Nixon both want to make a lot of money and burnish their reputations from the TV interviews.
Despite the play's repetitious nature and director Steve Goldklang's tendency to dawdle over it, "Frost/Nixon" does immerse you in an historical period that makes for compelling political theater. Opening in the White House's Oval Office for President Nixon's resignation speech in 1974, "Frost/Nixon" proceeds to take us to various locations in Australia, England and the United States. As Nixon and Frost joust over contractual terms in the months leading up to the 1977 telecast, their behind-the-scenes conflict is an absorbing way to prepare us for their on-camera jousting.
Political handlers, journalists and others in the entourage for this media event are portrayed by Larry Pinker, Joel Ottenheimer, Bruce Levy, Laura Malkus, Eric C. Stein, Todd Krickler, Andrea Bush, Ruta Kidolis and Tom Moore, most of whom play multiple roles.
The most incisive supporting performance is Pinker's embodiment of the bald, cigar-chomping agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar. And it's topically haunting to see Levy portray TV journalist Mike Wallace, who died on April 7. It's a reminder of the lingering links between the Watergate era and our own.
"Frost/Nixon" runs through May 13 at Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway in Fells Point. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $16. Call 410-563-9135 or go to http://www.vagabondplayers.org.