Actor Amy Thone met Richard Nixon at the White House when she was 10 years old — two weeks before he resigned. Now she plays the sad, post-resignation president in a powerful production of “Frost/Nixon” at 12th Avenue Arts.
The final hour of “Frost/Nixon” might be the must-see theater moment of the month — or, depending on what 2018 brings, the year.
Two of Seattle’s best actors, Amy Thone and Alexandra Tavares, face off as Richard Nixon and David Frost during their infamous series of grueling interviews in 1977 (28 hours in total, for four broadcasts), while their respective aides and advisers freak out in hushed voices and wild gesticulations, just off camera.
Screenwriter and playwright Peter Morgan once described “Frost/Nixon” as “an intellectual ‘Rocky’ “ — and this all-female production of nine actors, directed by Greg Carter, feels that way.
By Peter Morgan. Through Feb. 17, Strawberry Theatre Workshop at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $10-$36; (800-838-3006 or strawshop.org)
In one corner, we have Nixon: the disgraced president, exiled in California, plotting his big comeback. In the other corner, we have Frost: a British fop, TV host and proto-hipster, trying to prove to the world that he has the journalistic mettle to score a hit that a small army of investigative reporters had failed to achieve — crack Nixon and get him to confess, for the record and on camera, that he knowingly broke the law during the Watergate cover-up.
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Like “Rocky,” “Frost/Nixon” owes most of its success to the tense buildup before its climatic battle. (Morgan wrote “The Queen,” starring Helen Mirren, and created the Netflix series “The Crown” — he knows a thing or two about seducing an audience.)
For the first section of the play, Frost, a party boy by nature, busies himself recruiting journalists to help him frame probing questions while trying to raise money to fund the project, including Nixon’s $600,000 fee. Meanwhile, Nixon nurses his bruised ego and psychologically prepares to outwit Frost — and redeem himself in the public eye.
“Only one of us can win,” Frost tells Nixon during a late-night phone call, in a rare moment of cut-the-showbiz-crap candor between the two. “And I shall be your fiercest adversary. I shall come at you with everything I’ve got.”
“Good for you,” Nixon growls back. “The limelight can only shine on one of us. And for the other, it’ll be the wilderness.”
Both Thone and Tavares give magnificent performances as conflicted public figures whose futures are on the line — they both know it, but only occasionally show the cracks in their facades.
Playing ice-cool confidence over roiling insecurity is a tough job for any actor, but the two pull it off with emotionally eloquent tension.
Tavares’ Frost hides behind sly, devil-may-care smirks, but we can sense the strain just beneath the grin. Thone’s Nixon is rawer and angrier, delivering half-mumbled, disarmingly innocuous remarks with mournful, brief smiles before his deadliest thrusts. He comes off like a sad, rumpled blanket of a man — but that bundle hides daggers.
At one moment, as Frost and Nixon sit face to face, mere seconds before the cameras begin rolling, Nixon asks how Frost’s night was, adding offhandedly: “Do any fornicating?”
Thone delivers the line innocently, with the barest hint of a leer, knocking the adversary off guard. Tavares’ Frost cocks his head like a startled rabbit.
Then it’s lights, camera, action: Time to talk about the Vietnam War.
A few days before opening night, Thone admitted she was probably as nervous as she’d ever been for a show, partly because of Nixon’s iconic status (“I could do King John with a limp and a stutter,” she said, “and nobody would say, ‘that’s not what King John was like’ ”) and partly because Nixon cast a long shadow over Thone’s family.
Her father, Charles Thone, was a deeply conservative politician from Nebraska and a Nixon loyalist who, she said, even modeled his vocal patterns after the president. Both men, she said, grew up in dire poverty on farmland, saw themselves as outsiders and were deeply suspicious of elites. “Maybe guys who came out of that environment just wound up weird,” Thone said. “The abuse, malnutrition, mothers who were overwhelmed.”
Thone’s father served in the U.S. House of Representatives during the ’70s, she said, and “was at ground zero for the Nixon meltdown.” Two weeks before Nixon resigned, Thone’s family was invited to the White House, along with other Nixon stalwarts, where she remembers meeting “the bloated, sweaty, completely not-present Dick Nixon.”
The president shook her hand and looked right through her. Nixon, Thone said, “seemed full of sadness and difficulty — yet he’s been so cartooned and caricatured.”
So she decided to ditch the idea of impersonating Nixon and simply act the role.
Thone is an expert at tragedy. She has played some of Shakespeare’s most pathos-drenched characters: Julius Caesar, Lady Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, Cleopatra. The greatest moment in this “Frost/Nixon” feels like Thone channeling them — it comes in a monologue, during the late-night phone call, when Nixon says he just learned Frost also came from a modest background and ascended to power among “smartasses at college, the high-ups, the well-born.”
Thone executes the speech in exquisite Shakespeare-soliloquy style, starting with a murmur so low you have to lean forward to understand what she’s saying, then slowly building to a bitter, rabid climax about how the two of them will dominate the snobs with “awards, power and glory! We’re going to make those (expletives) chooooke!”
Thone stops suddenly, bent over, phone in hand, and asks almost plaintively: “Am I right?”
It’s a three-word question that contains multitudes. In that tiny second, Thone transforms Nixon from national boogeyman to something more pitiable, and more subtle: Shakespearean tragedy, fallen king and family ghost.