Probing politics

A look at corruption then and now

FROST/NIXON by Peter Morgan, directed by Ted Dykstra, with Len Cariou, David Storch, Ari Cohen and Tom McBeath. Presented by Canadian Stage in association with the Vancouver Playhouse at the Bluma Appel (27 Front East). Opens tonight (Thursday, October 16) and runs to November 8, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm, Saturday 2 pm. $20-$90, limited Monday pwyc. 416-368-3110.

Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon – the play and upcoming Ron Howard movie – centres around the historic series of TV interviews in which celebrity talk show host David Frost got U.S. president Richard Nixon to admit his guilt in the Watergate scandal.

Although his name isn’t in the title, there’s a third figure who’s critically important to the show – and history. That’s James Reston, Jr., the historian/academic/Nixon expert whose book The Conviction Of Richard Nixon inspired Morgan to write the play and who acts as the show’s narrator.

“The events are complex and cover a fairly vast period of time, and Reston helps condense a lot of the interviews and sum up that era,” says Ari Cohen, who plays the real-life figure (called Jim Reston) in the Canadian Stage production, opening tonight.

“He also addresses the audience and helps clarify things for them.”

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That isn’t a small task, laughs Cohen, especially for theatregoers who might fear they’re in for a ho-hum extended interview between Frost (David Storch) and Nixon (Len Cariou). Morgan’s play is anything but that.

“Part of my job is to help put you at ease and fill in bits of the story,” says the likeable actor, who’s done solid turns in Michael Healey’s Generous and Rune Arlidge and Adam Pettle’s Sunday Father.

Going into the show, Cohen didn’t know that much about the historic events of 30 years ago.

“It was a really satisfying period in history to research,” he says. “I got to talk with Reston. Because Jim’s so obsessed with Nixon in the play, I read as much about the man as I could. We watched portions of the real interviews. You always hear about how much Nixon did in Russia and China and with the Vietnam War. But what surprised me was the institutionalized corruption of that administration. Watergate was the tip of the iceberg.

“It was more profound at that time than it would be now, because I think these days we’re predisposed to distrust our politicians. We often take it for granted that we’re being lied to. But at that time I think there was still a measure of naïveté in America.”

The play’s Reston, who doubles as narrator and a researcher for Frost’s team, is motivated by a sense of justice.

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“I think he was frustrated that all the instruments of government failed to bring about the conviction of Richard Nixon,” says Cohen. “Nixon escaped prosecution by resigning, and then was essentially given immunity by President Ford. So Reston knew the interviews could be an event of tremendous historic significance, not just for the medium of television but, more importantly, for the U.S. system of government.”

Of course, plays don’t exist in political vacuums, and it’s no coincidence that Morgan’s play – which premiered in London in 2006 and moved to Broadway in 2007 – has garnered so much attention.

“You definitely think of what’s happened in Iraq and our public mistrust of today’s political leaders,” says Cohen. “These are challenging times, politically and economically. And I think artists are motivated to speak out. We rise up when something needs to be said.”

Additional Interview Clip

On the challenges of being a play’s narrator:

Download associated audio clip.


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