Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Cold Case of Frostbite

The year after the Bicentennial commemorated America’s declaration to fight off British monarchy, another historic Anglo-American face-off took place. This time, a single Brit would confront the American who had attempted to reign as ‘Imperial President.’

British television interviewer David Frost had paid Richard Nixon $1 million for a dozen interview sessions that would be broadcast over a week in shows sure to be heard around the world. While some clarification of history was inevitable, both men were primarily concerned with improving public sentiment towards them.

As we have seen in subsequent Presidential over-stepping such as the Iran-Contra Affair and the misuse of intelligence gathering to deceive the public about the urgency of invading Iraq, a sense of supreme self-righteousness permeated the Nixon Presidency. It was not seen as criminal for government employees to leak damaging lies about the other party’s front-runners in order to have them withdraw in disgrace and make way for less viable candidates. Or, for them to attempt electronic surveillance of the Democratic National Committee leadership so they could learn the opposition's tactics in time to sabotage them. These activities were not seen as illegal because they were sanctioned by a President who, in their eyes, was as sovereign as King George III.

The surveillance of the DNC never happened because the men sent to break in to its Watergate Hotel offices in June 1972 were caught by the night watchman. From then on, the former President continued to barricade himself behind executive privilege and fallen bodies of sacrificed staffers. He held his ground through his landslide re-election, but by August 1974, with impeachment a certainty, he handed the reign to Gerald Ford.

CONTINUATION FROM 'NOTEBOOK' BEGINS HERE: In August 2006 Peter Morgan's dramatization of Frost’s interviews with Nixon premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse. Frost/Nixon came to America in 2007 and within a year was a film version was on its way to several Academy Award nominations including best picture, director, and actor for Frank Langella as Nixon. This week the play opens its West Coast premiere (with Stacy Keach as Nixon) at the Ahmanson Theatre.

For most theater reviews, rather than enter a play with preconceptions affected by inevitably interpretative marketing and publicity materials, I prefer to listen to what the play has to say for itself. However, in the case of semi-documentaries, preparation is necessary. Here, the work of the playwright and actors is not rooted in the realm of imagination but in the real world. To gauge how their artistry enhances the recreation, we must freshly re-gather as accurate as possible a picture of what happened.

A short cut to this is provided by the recollections of Frost and two research assistants: reporters James Reston Jr. and Robert Zelnick (both of whom are also characterized in the play).

"It is a curious feeling to go to the theater and watch yourself onstage," Frost writes in Frost/Nixon: Behind the Scenes. "I attended a preview of Frost/Nixon two or three nights before the play opened in August 2006. I thought it was brilliantly written, directed and acted. There were more fictionalizations than I would have preferred, although one such piece of fictionalization – Nixon's phone call to me on the eve of Watergate – was, I thought, a masterpiece.”

Last year, prompted by the film, an enterprising reporter at Boston University's student paper, interviewed Zelnick, who said he had not seen the film, “but I’ve seen the play."

“It was great theater,” he said, “and the overall account is reasonably accurate. But there was poetic license taken for the stage that was somewhat in excess of what I was comfortable with.

"The character of Frost as portrayed on stage presents him as the kind of guy who rose to the occasion one time in his life. I don’t think that’s true. . . . [Whether it was once in his lifetime or more] he should be applauded for doing that. A lot of people have the opportunity and don’t rise to the occasion."

“I was not so sure about some of the other fictionalizations," Frost continues. "Why was Watergate now the twelfth of twelve sessions and not – as actually happened – two sessions in the middle? Why did James Reston's discoveries from the Watergate tapes only reach me on the morning of the Watergate session and not eight months earlier, as had actually been the case? Why did the early sessions, which contained a lot of good material, have to be depicted so negatively?. . . . Whenever I made these points to Peter [Morgan], he would simply sigh and say, 'David, you've got to remember this is a play, not a documentary.' However, aware of my concern, he thoughtfully added an author's note to the program, making the point that he had sometimes found it irresistible to let his imagination take over."

That note has not made it to the Ahmanson program. (Ironically, the description of this as "a new play" has survived from the original Donmar production.) However, the folks at Center Theater Group have honored Morgan's promise by incorporating the caveat in a question asked of director Michael Grandage in a program Q&A entitled "The Fact and Fiction of Frost/Nixon."

Ahmanson audiences will now weigh how theater has used language to balance reality and myth in depicting how one fallen leader used language to navigate around fact and fiction. It should be a fascinating battle between the imaginative and the impeachable, in the state whose only native son to become President was the only one to resign.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Spring Forward

Of the many pleasures in the Geffen Playhouse world premiere of Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still (through March 15) one is finally having due cause to write about Anna Gunn. She plays the play’s lead, a photographer named Sarah. I had seen her onstage once before in the first reading of David Lindsey-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, during the 2005 Pacific Playwrights Festival at my alma mater, South Coast Repertory.

Gunn made an indelible impression in the lead role of Becca, half a couple dealing with the death of their little boy. Late in the play, the poor teenage driver who had hit the child seeks some healing by dedicating a curious science fiction story about time travel, rabbit and worm holes, and parallel universes with Becca. Though I would see three subsequent productions, something set Gunn’s reading of the part – with Kevin Kilner, Sarah Rafferty, Lynn Milgrim and Philip Vaden – apart.

I touched on the phenomenon in "One Degree of Separation," a blog prompted by Amy Ryan's excellent performance in the Geffen's West Coast premiere. The title hints at how an incident can create a huge, undetectable gulf within a person. It also refers to how one undetectable element in a performance can distinguish it from all others.

When I diplomatically asked the playwright if my impressions had any merit, Lindsey-Abaire diplomatically responded, “Yes, I was blessed by those PPF actors who understood the material implicitly and got it across to that audience so wonderfully.”

Jump from NOTEBOOK begins here . . . I had worked with Alastair Duncan, Gunn’s husband, when he, Lynnda Ferguson, Cindy Katz and Fran├žois Giroday were in SCR’s production of Private Lives, winner of five L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards including one for Duncan. I had met her with Alastair at a Gregg Henry concert at L.A.'s Genghis Cohen. (Henry, a great singer, rarely has time to perform his music, though coincidentally he had a show shortly after we saw Time Stands Still last Saturday.)

In my review I interpreted Margulies’ title as ironic. He wants us – I presumed – to take the phrase at face value when the play begins, and apply it to the ability of photography to capture an event for our understanding. But two hours later we are to question that acceptance. Reality is beyond the grasp of cameras, reporters, and even playwrights. What we get is something else: the mirror, according to Shakespeare. Our reliance on these as more than mere representations is dangerously self-deluding. Not only will time not stand still for a photo, it’s constantly changing our lives and relationships as it carries us in its floodwater.

A few days after posting the review I received a press release that on Saturday L.A. TheaterWorks would air its recording of Margulies’ Sight Unseen – with Gunn in the cast, along with Randy Oglesby from SCR's world premiere, Adam Arkin and Jordan Baker). That was the final prompt to write something about Gunn and the Rabbit Hole that did not make sense in Monday’s review. Anyway, it was raining all that day in Lake Arrowhead.

First, however, I decided to hit the treadmill. Before I could get started the doorbell rang. A dark wet shroud filled the doorway. Within the over-sized cowl my neighbor was smiling as the DVD he had offered to loan me earlier in the week emerged from the slit in his slicker.

I had seen bits of What the Bleep do We Know? on cable a year or so ago and had been keen to watch the whole thing. I started the film and the jog together. A handful of experts explain quantum physics while a photographer played by Marlee Matlin goes bumping and bruising through life in anecdotal applications of the theory.

According to the scientists, with quantum physics – or mechanics – time can just as easily move backwards as forward. Hmmm, I thought as I jogged (my bounding in place now feeling suspiciously like time standing still), maybe this is what Margulies’ title was on about.

Roughly 19 minutes into the film, I was stopped in my tracks – or would have been if my track hadn’t been moving of its own accord – by a statement by Dr. David Albert, Director of Columbia University's Philosophical Foundations of Physics and a specialist in how quantum mechanics impacts the “philosophy of space and time.”

“There’s a great mystery called the mystery of the direction of time," said the author of Quantum Mechanics and Experience and Time and Chance. "There’s a certain sense in which the fundamental laws of physics that we have don’t make any interesting distinction, say, between past and future. For example, it’s a puzzle from the standpoint of the fundamental laws of physics why we should be able to remember the past and not have the same kind of epistemic access to the future. It’s a puzzle from the standpoint of these laws why we should think something like by acting now we can affect the future but not the past. These things – that we have a different kind of epistemic access to the past than the future; that we have kind of control by acting out over the future than we do over the past – are so fundamental to the way that we experience the world that it seems to me, not to be curious about them, is to be three-quarters of the way to being dead.”

Once off the treadmill, I went online to find out more about the film and discovered a wonderland of additional information, including news that a 3-DVD Director’s Cut, called Down the Rabbit Hole, was now available.

'Time Stands Still’ continues at the Geffen Playhouse through March 15, and there are tickets still available. Saturday's radio broadcast of 'Sight Unseen' will also be available online for the following week following the March 7 broadcast. For more information on "What the Bleep Do We Know," visit its website.

Photo Illustration: Anna Gunn in 'Time' (Michael Lamont), Marlee Matlin on the ‘Bleep’ dust jacket; the wild hare himself by John Tenniel