While the presidential debates may be over, on Nov. 9, the Greenbelt Arts Center will revisit a conversation between two men that changed the course of history.
On Aug. 9, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon sat in the Oval Office of the White House in front of television cameras and told the world that, for the good of America, he would resign as the commander in chief following the Watergate scandal.
On Sept. 4, 1974, President Gerald Ford granted Nixon a “full, free and absolute pardon” so he would never be put on trial for his alleged involvement in Watergate.
Ford wanted Nixon to present a written apology and admit to his part in the scandal. Nixon, always one to deflect blame, refused. He was granted the pardon anyway.
The hard part for Nixon was far from over.
The American people felt they had been lied to and betrayed. They were angry — the former president would not get his day in court and they would not get justice.
Nixon would spend the rest of his life yearning for the American Public to — at the very least — like him again.
Across the Atlantic, British talk-show host and well-liked celebrity David Frost saw an opportunity. He had met the disgraced president once, and the British tabloids labeled Frost as being too soft.
With Nixon almost down to his last dollar thanks to paying lawyers and legal fees, Frost would offer him the chance to talk about his time as president, from foreign and domestic policy to Watergate.
So, in 1977, Frost gave Nixon $600,000 for a series of sitdown conversations to be aired on television. Both men were fighting for something — for Frost, getting the former president to finally admit his wrongdoing, and for Nixon, getting back public admiration.
“I’m not concerned if the audiences make comparisons to the movie,” director Bob Kleinberg says about his production of “Frost/Nixon” at the Greenbelt Arts Center. “Obviously, people make comparisons with Nixon as Nixon and the actors as Nixon. You’re dealing with real people here, not fiction.”
For this production, which runs to Nov. 25, Kyle McGruther and Sandy Irving portray Frost and Nixon, respectively. Kleinberg couldn’t have picked better leading men.
McGruther and Irving are no strangers to the stage, but both say taking on their respective roles for this play was a bit different.
“I don’t know if other actors are like this, but for me, I have this tendency that I want to be liked by the audience,” Irving says. “Even if I’m a villain, I have this tendency to play him with a heart of gold.
“I do feel sorry for [Nixon]. The problem is Nixon was very good at feeling sorry for himself. He does a lot of moaning about how tragic everything is.”
For McGruther, tackling Frost was a completely new experience.
“It’s been interesting, challenging,” McGruther says. “It is a different soft of character that I’ve done. When I was writing my biography [for the program], I looked back and saw that I was doing villains and comic relief. I’m a relative newcomer to the area — it’s kind of nice to play a different sort of character.
Kleinberg gave McGruther and Irving one DVD out of the set of the original interviews for them to watch. Even then, the movie, directed by Ron Howard, was still out there for them to see.
“I definitely remember the movie and read the book by David Frost recalling his account of the [interviews],” McGruther says. “During the rehearsals, I had the same feeling of being sorry for him, but not later. Later, I became the antagonist.”
McGruther and Irving spend most of the play staring at each other on stage. While the two respect each other and give high praise all around, there are naturally going to be some tense moments.
“Kyle is a good actor and he’s done an excellent job,” Irving says. “But to sustain ... there are a few moments in the play where the narrator steps in and does a voiceover and you have to freeze. It feels like forever.”
“I was told about [Sandy’s] interest in getting his character down,” McGruther adds. “I wasn’t able to go to the first table read, so the first rehearsal I went to, I saw Sandy and something about him struck me that he was Nixon. He has that certain something about him. He’s somewhere between an actual Nixon and Frank Langella [the actor who originated the role of Nixon in both the play and the movie].”
There are some who aren’t quite old enough to remember the fallout of Watergate and the epic loathing of Nixon. For Kleinberg, presenting this story is a good way for audiences members to connect, or even reconnect.
Following the Sunday, Nov. 18, performance, he and the cast will sit for a Q&A session with students who want to know more about the period.
“I was very glad they were going to do at least one Q&A session with the audience,” Irving says. “I’m very curious how the audience will react.
“I’m from [that] era, and I was just graduating college when all this happened. I wonder what my children and people that age will take away. I would like the audience to feel somewhat moved, but to think about the character of Nixon.”
“I know a number of the audience members will not be from my generation. I’ve lived Watergate, I remember it,” Kleinberg says. “I hope the audience will look at this as an opportunity to investigate more. There are numbers and parts that Frost and Nixon say that allude to what happened over time.
“I’m hoping the audience will walk way from the play saying ‘I want to know more.’”