You can imagine the writer of this play, Peter Morgan, digging out the Frost tapes and realising that he had literary gold dust all over his fingers. (A bit like Herzog and Grizzly Man). One of the keys to creating a hit play is to come up with an idea so good that you know there's no excuse for not making it work.
So Morgan had the idea, now he just had to make a play out of it. This is where the problems start.
Has ever a more lop-sided piece of theatre been created? Probably, but all the same - the first hour of this piece, which runs at one hour forty without an interval, is a turgid lecture, riven with exposition, two dimensional characterisation (the US army advisor who assists Nixon; the 'hippie' journalist, Reston etc) and caricature. Sheen plays Frost with bravado but the script offers no scope for subtlety, Langella tries to open up Nixon but is reduced to strange alcoholic leg-twitching. The piece contains one moment of drama which seems contrived and has no resonance.
Somehow the play lurches to the money. Then, miraculously, it comes together. The gold dust sparkles, the writer transcribes the tapes, we know what they mean, and we are impressed by our own insight and grateful to the writer for permitting us to be so clever. But we are not, I would suggest, moved, nor much the wiser about the human condition, or even the faults of Nixon himself. We now know that he was afflicted by hubris, but have no idea what lead him to lie, to cheat, to hoist himself on his own petard.
Frost/ Nixon isn't really a play. It's a clever idea masquerading as a documentary, recycling an interview. As though to prove the point the design helps us along - when the action switches to 70's New York, there's some footage of 70's New York. When Reston mentions a silver cadillac, there's one on screen for us. The TV sets are there for a reason: when Langella's Nixon is finally wrong-footed by Frost, it's up there for all of us to see, but they tend to obscure as much as they reveal. The play does something similar: we leave the theatre thinking we know the whole story, only to realise a few breaths later that we have barely scratched the surface.
Note 1: For Morgan's account of how he came to write the play, see this article. The show will transfer to Broadway in February and the feature film is in development.
Note 2: Backstage gossip: Langella is a method actor. He drove the director mad by refusing to give a proper performance until the show opened, which may explain the brittleness of his on-stage relationship with Sheen. He is known to improvise lines from the interview which are scripted verbatim, causing Sheen to improvise back. He finds it hard to get out of character, prowling his two dressing rooms with presidential wrath.