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Hamptons Life

Jun 26, 2018 11:30 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

David Frost And Richard Nixon Meet On Bay Street Theater Stage

Daniel Gerroll as British journalist David Frost and Harris Yulin as former U.S. President Richard Nixon.  LENNY STUCKER
Jun 26, 2018 11:57 AM

At the end of 1977, while taking a look back at the year in television, New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor observed, “The David Frost interviews with Richard M. Nixon were anticipated with trepidation and received with mixed feelings. But, whatever the hoopla surrounding their production, the interviews turned out to be fascinating and significant documents.”

The British journalist Frost interviewed the former president 12 times that year—three interviews a week for four weeks—and the finished product was broadcast in four parts, riveting the nation as Frost worked to pierce Nixon’s defenses and extract an apology for the Watergate scandal.

It was British playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan who thought to tap into the subject matter—both the interviews themselves and the effort that went into convincing Nixon to publicly discuss his presidency—to write a play. Named “Frost/Nixon,” the play premiered in London in 2006 starring Micheal Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon. Both actors reprised their roles when the play made its Broadway debut in 2007, earning a Tony nomination for Best Play, and again for the 2008 screen adaptation penned by Mr. Morgan and directed by Ron Howard, receiving an Oscar nod for Best Picture.

Continuing a Mainstage season that is marked by political overtones—it started with the world premiere of the Hollywood blacklist-inspired “Fellow Travelers” and will conclude with “Evita”—Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater presents a new production of “Frost/Nixon” directed by Sarna Lapine, now in previews and officially opening on Saturday night, June 30.

In the lead roles are two stage and screen actors with ties to the South Fork, Harris Yulin and Daniel Gerroll. Not only have they both acted on the Bay Street stage before—separately—they have also both directed there. Mr. Yulin directed the 20th anniversary revival of “Men’s Lives” in 2012 and Mr. Gerroll directed and appeared in a number of plays in the 2000s.

Mr. Yulin, a veteran of Broadway who is perhaps most recognized for his film roles as a crooked cop in “Scarface” and a judge in “Ghostbusters II,” now takes on the role of Nixon. The London-born Mr. Gerroll, who has also appeared on Broadway in addition to many film and television credits, plays his fellow Englishman Frost.

During an interview Monday, the day before previews began, Mr. Gerroll said that though he never acted with Mr. Yulin prior to this production, he has long been an admirer, and that Mr. Yulin as Nixon is “perfect casting.”

“His magnetism matches the famous Nixon magnetism,” Mr. Gerroll said. “So that really helps, to have somebody of such extraordinary presence playing someone of such extraordinary presence.”

Though he lauded Mr. Yulin’s portrayal of Nixon, he also noted that theater has a way of making an audience believe.

“There is a certain magic about live theater,” he said. “If you come on, in the first few minutes, people might say, ‘Well, that’s obviously not the real person.’ But there’s a certain kind of brainwashing that happens, sort of a Stockholm syndrome. You believe what’s being handed to you, unquestioningly, and you sit back and you enjoy.

“I found that to be the case, over and over and over, when I first started doing roles with American accents. It sounded terrible. But, oddly enough, after 15 minutes it didn’t seem to matter anymore. There is this extraordinary magic that happens where you just buy into what you’re seeing.”

He said he was an out-of-work fledgling actor in London when he first saw Mr. Yulin on his Sony 9-inch black-and-white television. “I thought, ‘This guy is great,’” he recalled.

Mr. Gerroll admitted that he never thought he would end up in New York, but eventually he did, and he met Mr. Yulin at a casting session. He told Mr. Yulin about how impressed he was while watching the 9-inch television.

Some time later, their roles were reversed. Mr. Yulin came up to Mr. Gerroll on the street because he had just seen Mr. Gerroll perform in a play in New York.

“He introduced himself. I said, ‘Oh, I know who you are,’” Mr. Gerroll recalled with a laugh. “Since then, we tried to work together a number of times. It’s never quite worked out until now.”

Mr. Gerroll hails from the U.K. and now calls Connecticut home, but he happened to be in Sag Harbor during the summer of 1972—the summer of the Watergate break-in that would lead to Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

“My uncle owned a hotel in Montauk, and his home was in Sag Harbor. I was actually spending 1972 and ’73 coming over here from all my breaks from college,” he said.

His uncle was a Nixon supporter, and “there were some emotional discussions going on at the time.”

“Before then, people who questioned government actions were crazies,” Mr. Gerroll said. “One tended—if one was brought up in a conservative household as I was—one tended to doubt anybody who criticized the establishment. The word ‘student’ in those days took on a pejorative term. You’d turn on the news and ‘students in Japan’ would be protesting, ‘students in California’ would be protesting.”

People believed that Nixon was being unfairly persecuted, he said.

“It’s very difficult to shift from thinking the establishment was somehow culpable, to where we are now, where we are extremely suspicious of the establishment.”

He said 1972 to ’73 is when it all unraveled—the period delineated trust in government, and distrust.

“It was really hard to believe, that a president could commit these crimes and endorse a burglary in order to help his election prospects. But of course, now,” he laughed, “you realize it’s par for the course, almost.”

He alluded to the old adage: History repeats itself.

“Some of the elements, good and bad, that surround us in our lives, they never go away. We think they’re just temporary—they’re not. It’s a pattern that is woven. ... We thought after the First World War that was the great war to end all wars, and what happened since? We thought with Nixon that criminality in the White House was a one-off occurrence. Well, obviously, it happened before—we weren’t made aware of it—and certainly is possibly happening since.”

Among the reasons that Nixon agreed to the Frost interviews were money—he was paid $600,000 ($2.5 million in today’s dollars) plus a share of the profits—and the opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of the public after resigning in disgrace.

“Frost/Nixon” demonstrates the psychological tussle between interviewer and interviewee, and how Nixon’s shot at restoring his good name did not go as planned.

Onstage, as a backdrop to the action, is a 15-monitor video wall behind a scrim. Set designer Wilson Chen planned the wall to serve many purposes, including displaying the actors’ faces just as Frost and Nixon appeared on television.

Tal Yarden, a Brooklyn-based projection designer who works worldwide—including on 2017’s “Network” adaptation starring Bryan Cranston at National Theatre in London—was brought in to lend a hand on “Frost/Nixon.”

“It’s a fairly technically complex little piece,” Mr. Yarden said in an interview last Thursday, just as technical rehearsal was beginning. “For a relatively small theater, they have done an amazing job. Bay Street’s production manager, Mike Billings, here, is really resourceful. And they located a couple of period television cameras. Very old, giant television cameras on pedestals.”

He explained that the “guts” were removed from the cameras and they have been retrofitted with high-tech, small cameras, plus controls and monitors for the camera people—who will share the stage with the actors, as if they were the television camera crew.

The background has a clean and simple look, and there is an element to the set that is a bit abstract, he said.

“We can choose to have the screens on or not. When they’re off, they kind of disappear into blackness,” Mr. Yarden said. “And when they’re on, they take on a presence in the show. We can use them in a variety of ways. We can use them with cameras to show live action as the actual interview with Frost/Nixon is happening. … [They] can become window panes, looking out to the Pacific Ocean from Nixon’s home at Casa Pacifica.”

“Frost/Nixon,” like last year’s “Network,” may be about a period in the 1970s, but it speaks to the political times that the world is in right now, he said.

“It’s particularly poignant and of the moment,” Mr. Yarden said. “There is no one who will see this and not think of the nature of our world today and our government today.”

Though Mr. Gerroll is accustomed to being on camera, it is a different experience being on camera during live theater.

“It’s funny—it’s the first time I ever had to bring some of the skills of acting on camera to a live stage before,” he said. “When I say ‘skills’—that sounds a bit pompous—I mean, simply not moving so that your head has blocked the other actor from the camera lens. You know, little things like that, that you have to attune your spacial awareness.”

He appreciates the care and planning that went into the technical aspects of the show.

“I’ve done a lot of plays here and the production values on this are just mind-blowing,” Mr. Gerroll said. “It’s a shame that it’s only three and a half weeks, because the amount of work and imagination that’s gone into this really deserves to have a much longer life. But that’s the nature of the out-of-town theater. You put it on for a delineated number of weeks, and that’s it—then you chop the set up. Which is sad really, but it’s inevitable.”

He anticipates that, even after the run is over, “Frost/Nixon” will stay with him.

“What you learn as you get older is your work is never done. Even when you close, you’re still investigating and still learning. There is no beginning and no end, only by the box office.”

“Frost/Nixon” plays in previews on Thursday, June 28, and Friday, June 29, at 8 p.m. Opening night is Saturday, June 30, at 7 p.m. The production will continue through July 22. Admission starts at $40. For tickets and showtimes, call 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.

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