Hammer and Wrong: Keach plays a not-so-private Dick.

At the Shakespeare Theatre next June, Stacy Keach’s elderly Lear will spar with his Fool, through hubris and denial, over the wreckage he’s made of his kingly legacy. In Peter Morgan’s Froth/Nix—sorry, Frost/Nixon—Keach spars with David Cox’s fool minus the Shakespearean trappings as disgraced former President Richard M. Nixon and his lightweight journalistic inquisitor, David Frost. The evening skips lightly (at times, even sitcomishly) through the events leading up to Frost’s widely watched 1977 television interviews with Nixon to deliver an engrossing 15 minutes or so of actual drama just before the final fade. That entertainment­-heavy mix is probably canny. In some 12 hours of interviews, Frost managed to trap a confidently stonewalling Nixon into admitting culpability for the coverup of the Watergate burglaries, involvement he’d steadfastly denied until then. But some three decades later, a play devoted entirely to that revelation would necessarily feel anticlimactic, so Morgan’s script deals instead with the exigencies of television—the risks for Frost, who nearly derailed his career, the Nixon camp’s overconfidence (“It’s going to be a big wet kiss”), the ethics of the paid interview ($600,000 plus profit participation for the former president), and the decisiveness of the TV close-up. “The first and greatest sin of television is that it simplifies, diminishes,” asserts someone midway through the evening, an accusation that’s no less apt leveled at Morgan’s play, which is too explicit by half and almost puppyish in its desire to divert and amuse. The evening alternately charms and provokes, pumping up what suspense it can by buffing Nixon’s gravitas while making Frost’s investigative team appear amateurish and the journalist himself a poseur. If the conclusion remains foregone, there’s still something centrally gratifying—especially at the tail end of an over-reaching, hubristic administration that makes Nixonian excesses seem downright mild in retrospect—in watching a president squirm under close questioning. Keach’s performance approaches impersonation only occasionally, in a goofy, double-armed V-for-victory wave, say, or when his stage voice drops to a gravel and molasses growl. More often, he’s garrulous and crafty, the consummate politician, adept at throwing questioners off their game with an offhanded, just before the camera blinks on, “Did you do any fornicating last night?” Cox offers a Frost who’s doughy and dilletantish yet facile enough to appear persuasively sharp on-camera. Michael Grandage’s production backs them up with a few sticks of furniture, attention-grabbing accoustical and lighting flourishes, and a looming cluster of video screens that collectively offer the final, merciless closeup that will do Nixon in.