The genius of Frost/Nixon when it comes to the two figures that the play brings to life is not rooted in the fact that Frank Langella looks and sounds like Richard Nixon. In fact, his performance is as far from an impersonation as it can get. And certainly the same can be said of Michael Sheen's brilliant interpretation of David Frost, the British talk show host who scored the biggest coup of his life when he interviewed the ex-president of the United States in a series of programs that have become the stuff of journalistic legend. The play's power comes from the titanic performances of these two actors, the incredible pacing established by director Michael Grandage and Peter Morgan's powerful script which matches the two men in a power play that often feels like the 15th round of an Ali-Frazier heavyweight bout.
The difficulty in bringing these characters to life has a lot to do with our historical familiarity to them, and also in which side of the Atlantic you saw this play. In the case of Richard Nixon, here in America, we know the man's face and voice too well. As a result, Frank Langella's performance takes a bit getting used to. At first, we fight the fact that he neither looks nor sounds like Nixon, a man who was born, bred, and destroyed under the watchful eyes of the cameras. But as Mr. Langella's performance develops we begin to believe that we are watching the President of the United States. It is a brilliant illusion that can only occur within the precincts of the theater, and Langella is a master of this type of eye-opening sleight-of-hand. After a few minutes we are hooked, and we start noticing mannerisms that Nixon never had, but wished he had. His limp wrist dismissal gesture of European loafers is just priceless.
Michael Sheen's approach to the other side of the coin of this play is very similar to Langella's. He completely avoids an impersonation of the talk show host in favor of capturing the flavor of the man. We believe he is David Frost because of his mastery of style. Mr. Sheen is one of Britain's finest new actors, and part of the fun of Frost/Nixon is observing the different approaches to acting of the two leads. Simply put, Sheen plays his part, but Langella becomes his. It is the classic difference that separates Broadway from the West End, and it is one of the main attractions we should look for when we have the unique opportunity to witness two equal forces headlining a project. The chance to see this phenomenon at work is alone worth the price of admission to Frost/Nixon: don't miss it.