Last night Stacy Keach completed his run as RN in Frost/Nixon at LA’s Ahmanson Theatre, triumphantly fighting back, in the best Nixonian tradition, to retake the stage after being hospitalized for a week by a mild stroke. Tomorrow through Sunday, he appears with the production at Arizona State University in Tempe. (As was the case with the final weekend at the Ahmanson, understudy Bob Ari will take over as RN for the Saturday and Sunday matinees.)
Yesterday Kerry Lengel of the Arizona Republic interviewed Keach. As he has done in nearly every press interview on this tour, the veteran actor emphasized his belief that Richard Nixon, in the decades since he left the White House, has emerged as a figure as compelling as any in Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, and just as worthy of portrayal by an actor seeking to reach the heights of his profession. (Or maybe I should add “her” – could it be that one day we might see, say, Meryl Streep or Glenn Close in a Frost/Nixon revival, much as Dame Judith Anderson or Sarah Bernhardt once played Hamlet?)
“Nixon has become an iconic figure, a tragic American figure,” Keach says. “Just as there are many great Hamlets and many great Lears, there are many great Nixons. Anthony Hopkins was a great Nixon. Rip Torn was a great Nixon. So I am adding a notch in my belt in the Nixonian tradition.”
And what does he add to the Nixonian tradition [asks Lengel]?
“I think my contribution is the humor,” [Keach] says. “He’s very engaging, and humor is one of the means of humanizing the character, which is one of Peter Morgan’s objectives.
“This play has done more to rehabilitate Nixon’s image in the world than the original interviews ever could have.”
Indeed, Keach’s temporary departure from the production and his replacement by Ari for a week emphasized, perhaps better than anything else, that playing Nixon is starting to become one of the litmus tests for an actor’s range and capability. The understudy’s performance in the role was examined by Mike Boehm at the Los Angeles Times’s site (“Ari, who was also Frank Langella’s understudy on Broadway, revealed a markedly different take on Nixon than Keach’s: gruffer, deeper-voiced, more raw and less able to disguise the insecurities and disappointments that nag at him”) and at considerable length by Evan Henerson at Examiner.com. That is to say, Ari’s handling of the part received almost the kind of attention at those sites that New York newspapers would have given to the performance of Richard Burton’s understudy in Hamlet in the 1960s had that eminent thespian been laid up for a week.
And, at Canada’s National Post, in the course of a review of Susan Jacoby’s new book on the Alger Hiss case, Philip Marchand suggests a new area of RN’s career for any playwright with the skill and ambition to take it on:
It is strange that Hollywood, which has aimed to make high drama out of such relatively insignificant political events as CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow’s televised attack on Senator Joe McCarthy (Good Night, and Good Luck) and David Frost’s interviews with Richard Nixon (Frost/Nixon), has neglected the story of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. The 1948 confrontation between the two men — Hiss, the cool, handsome, high-ranking government official, versus Chambers, the talented, scruffy, emotionally erratic, repressed homosexual writer and editor — truly was dramatic.
There was a PBS miniseries back in the 1980s in which Edward Herrmann played Alger Hiss, but it was a rather undistinguished affair. And the story is rather too complex for a 100-minute movie. A carefully constructed 3 1/2 hour play, however, might well be as spellbinding from beginning to end as The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial or Inherit The Wind. Any takers?