If you count yourself among the many disappointed by Ron Howard's Best Picture-nominated film, hear this: Peter Morgan's 2006 stage play about British playboy and talk show host Peter Frost's 1977 television interviews of Richard Nixon is, thank heavens, far superior to its overblown cinematic successor. For example, where Howard forced characters to provide their own narration through awkward, pseudo-documentary flash-forwards, here they just step into a different light for their asides. And while the film portrayed the interview as a critical moment for the American psyche, the play treats it as what it was: a mental thumb-wrestling match between two ambitious men, neither of them particularly likable, with their careers riding on the outcome.
Indeed, the only great advantage the silver screen rendition has over Rose Riordan's production at Portland Center Stage is Frank Langella's brilliant impersonation of the disgraced Nixon. Riordan's star, Bill Christ, bears no resemblance at all to Tricky Dick besides possessing a large head and pugnacious glower, but he has both the rumbling voice and the barely suppressed rage down. The rest of the cast performs admirably; David Townsend preens with desperation as Frost and Adam Ludwig is the picture of sputtering left-wing pique as James Reston Jr.
This production, like the film, has its moments of laughable directorial bombast. The lovely set by Tony Cisek, who designed last year's Sometimes a Great Notion, consists of a series of arches not unlike the interior of an antique camera, terminating in an enormous projection screen that imitates a bank of television monitors. The wall o' TVs is mostly put to good use, flashing bits of documentary footage and blocks of color, but when the Nixon camp arrives for the final interview—the one that covers Watergate—they appear silhouetted by an orange glow to a dance beat. The moment resembles nothing so much as an NFL commercial spot.
For the most part, though, the production stays in the realm of the sensible, and goes over well with the audience, which was more engaged in post-show discussion than most. All around, those who remembered Watergate indulged in nostalgic anger and explained to those who know Nixon as the Republican who didn't do quite as much harm as Reagan and Bush just what made the man so vile. .
Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays, alternating 2 pm Saturday and 7:30 pm Sunday shows. Closes May 10. $30-$66.50.