FROST/NIXON by Peter Morgan (Canadian Stage). To November 8. $20-$90. 416-368-3110. See Continuing. Rating: NNN
Peter Morgan has a knack for dramatizing real-life politicians. Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker both won Oscars playing his versions of Queen Elizabeth II and Idi Amin. Frank Langella could do the same when he plays Richard Nixon in the upcoming Ron Howard movie of Frost/Nixon.
As he proves in his original stage version, Morgan knows how to find the telling situation that reveals the person behind the figurehead. Here he centres on the historic 1977 TV interviews between the resigned U.S. prez (Len Cariou) and the dandyish talk show host David Frost (David Storch).
Leading up to the talks, there's tons at stake for both men and their advisors. Nixon hopes to clear his reputation and re-enter politics; Frost, who self-funded much of the project, hopes to break through in the U.S. As in a boxing match - a motif in the show - there can be only one winner.
The fascinating set-up lets Morgan touch on the link between entertainment and politics, weak justifications for war (Nixon's involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia chillingly foreshadows Bush in Iraq) and that age-old theme that's as ancient as Greek tragedy, hubris.
Unfortunately, this production doesn't reach the script's potential. Cariou's initial bluster feels like grandstanding, while Storch's Frost is all surface and clipped accent. The supporting cast, including Ari Cohen's narrator figure Jim Reston, do better work.
In the show's final half, however, when we see the actual tapings, the performances improve. The drama here works on many levels - we've got actors playing real men playing to each other and the TV audience - and it's thrilling.
More excitement like this throughout the play and this production, with its uncluttered look and feel by director Ted Dykstra and his designers, would have been a stronger ticket.