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Jul 2, 2018 8:03 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Theater Review: Harris Yulin Brilliantly Embodies Nixon After The Fall

Harris Yulin as Richard Nixon in 'Frost/Nixon' at Bay Street Theater. LENNY STUCKER
Jul 3, 2018 9:50 AM

Will he or will he not be Nixon? Could Harris Yulin, the actor with the face of a thousand characters, someone whose chameleon ability on screen and stage let him play both bad guy and good guy in countless roles, the guy you sometimes see lunching at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, be the consummate Richard Nixon?

In “Frost/Nixon,” currently running at Bay Street Theater, Mr. Yulin does all that with an absolutely knock-out-of-the-park performance as the disgraced ex-president hoping to make one last comeback. Mr. Yulin has the gestures, the walk, the talk of the man we remember—at least those of us old enough to be around when the events depicted on the stage were unfolding in the mid-1970s. He helps us understand and empathize with Nixon in his descent.

Mr. Yulin gives us a man exhausted by his trials but anxious to duel a worthy opponent. And in the person of Daniel Gerroll as David Frost—’70s global talk-show-host, international playboy, breezy raconteur—we get such an adversary, not just in the script, but in the acting. Mr. Gerroll as Frost is harried, frenetic, worried—faultless in the role. Both men uncannily recreate characters we once had in our living rooms via television.

Since the 2006 play by British screenwriter and dramatist Peter Morgan is largely a jab-and-parry between the two men as the title suggests, it is their equally outstanding performances that we take away.

Mr. Yulin quietly captures Nixon’s off-putting way with people—Nixon flubs every joke—and comes across as someone who was absent when social graces were passed out. Behind that brooding demeanor is a man always calculating: the cost of things, the advantage he might get.

When you see actors going at it so swimmingly they make it look easy and you lose sight of all the factors that come into play that took you there: Sarna Lapine’s snappy direction, the seamless script, the flashy staging and lighting. Bay Street manages to put on exciting staging with minimal physical sets and props, instead using projections against the backstage to superb effect. The collaboration here between Wilson Chin (scenic designer), Ken Billington (lighting designer) and Tal Yarden (projections designer) gel here to mesmerizing effect.

The story unfolds on numerous TV sets—up to 15 at times. A helicopter taking off the from the White House when Nixon left after resigning; the ocean background of his expansive villa at San Clemente; the city beyond a hotel room; TV equipment in a studio; and ultimately, and repeatedly, the two faces of the principals. With the stark lighting, listening to the voices of the men as we remember them in real life, dang if they don’t even seemingly take on their facial characteristics.

The events that led to Nixon’s downfall already have occurred when “Frost/Nixon” opens. Before we get to the actual interviews, we get to know not only the men at that time of their lives but the back story: David Frost is anxious to get the disgraced Nixon on tape for TV. Frost hopes the interview will revive his lagging career, at the same time Nixon feels demeaned making the rounds of doctors’ conventions as dinner speaker. All his triumphs in foreign affairs and protecting the environment were overshadowed not only by his staying in a failing war in Vietnam, and the bombing of Cambodia, but by the one crime and ensuing scandal of a coverup that came to be known by the hotel and office complex where it occurred: Watergate. And dammit, that’s all everybody wants him to talk about!

Nixon’s agent, the legendary Swifty Lazar (Stephen Lee Anderson), suggests to Nixon this interview might rehabilitate him in the public’s mind, and anyway, the numbers are good—600,000 by the time the negotiation ends.

Yet Frost has to find an outlet for the production without going broke, and it doesn’t go well. His team of researchers and producers know he must nail Nixon to make the project a success and not a laughingstock. Minor characters in the retinue of both men come and go.

Playwright Morgan is known for his historical drama; he wrote the movie “The Queen,” and is the creator of the popular Netflix series “The Crown.” There, as in “Frost/Nixon,” he rearranges dates and facts to make it lively. Frost did not meet his girlfriend on the plane coming to America as in the script; she was already his girlfriend and a journalist herself. Frost was apparently not so inept an interviewer in the early stages of the project as the play depicts; and that wonderful late-night conversation when Nixon supposedly calls Frost never happened. That was disappointing to learn because it’s such a wonderful scene in the drama.

I’ve seen “Frost/Nixon” three times in the last week—once the 2008 film and twice at Bay Street—and as someone who has spent a lifetime in journalism, and is fascinated by politics, and was hyper aware of the Nixon drama as it unfolded, “Frost/Nixon” holds a continuing fascination. Perhaps at least one of those qualities is needed to fully appreciate the play today.

When Nixon, finally, at the climatic moment of the drama, admits his wrong-doing, the moment is moving largely because Mr. Yulin has exposed the man’s flawed humanity. His failings did not play out as in a dispute with your cantankerous neighbor; they were on a grand scale and affected a country, a generation, and America’s role in the world. You don’t forgive him, but perhaps you understand him.

The historical moment of the interview itself may seem like a footnote in the grand scale of events surrounding Nixon. But it was deeply significant, as it gave closure to a nation during one of the most appalling periods in our history.

To expect the drama to be closely relevant to today would be a mistake, for our current president has none of the intellectual gravitas, nor the deep grounding in government, of Nixon. History will never judge Trump like Nixon, for made-for-TV Trump will never be a tragic figure.

Yet.

When Mr. Yulin gives one of Nixon’s last speeches in the play, he evokes empathy for the imperfect man as he comes to grips with the effect of his crimes: “I let down our system of government and dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but now think it’s too corrupt and the rest. Yes … I let the American people down.”

Indeed, Nixon broke a trust in government, one that has never been fully restored. “Frost/Nixon” gives us a sharp reminder how our leaders can fail us, how fragile good government can be.

For real estate savants: Nixon’s 5.45-acre home in San Clemente, La Casa Pacifica, is on the market for $63.5 million. Since it’s been for sale more than three years, there may be some wiggle room. Be forewarned however, the price has already dropped from $75 million.

“Frost/Nixon” continues through July 22 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Admission starts at $40. Guests under 30 can pay just $30 and guests under 20 can pay just $20. For tickets and showtimes, call 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.

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I wholeheartedly agree. The show was spellbinding and the entire cast was excellent. Mr Yulin's performance is beyond belief. I've met Richard Nixon and Mr Yulin congers Nixon back to life with a stunning portrayal of the former president.
By giljoy (1), Wainscott on Jul 15, 18 11:53 AM