Russ Widdall was Bobby Kennedy in New City Stage Company's recent production of "RFK." He's now playing David Frost in "Frost/Nixon." Credit: Annie R. Such
While playing Bobby Kennedy in New City Stage Company’s recent production of “RFK,” Russ Widdall met audience members nightly who would recall to him where they were when Kennedy or his brother were assassinated. Widdall, born in 1965, is a little too young for those events to have made an impression, but he does remember the impact of the Watergate scandal a decade later.
“When I was 9 years old, I was allowed to come home from school to have lunch,” Widdall remembers. “So I would watch cartoons while I ate my SpaghettiOs. Then Watergate happened and it was omnipresent, so I couldn’t watch cartoons anymore.”
Widdall recalled that childhood story to illustrate the sweeping cultural impact of Richard Nixon’s impeachment, which is the subject of Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon.” Continuing its current season focusing on the presidency through several decades of the late 20th century, New City will present the Philadelphia premiere of the play this month, directed by Aaron Cromie.
Turning from Bobby Kennedy to British television personality David Frost is an adjustment for Widdall. While both are larger-than-life characters, their similarities may end there. “You’re talking about two guys who were famous, but famous for very different reasons,” Widdall says. “Bobby Kennedy was a flawed human being, but certainly one with enormous accomplishments. David Frost was a very accomplished broadcaster, but one whose reputation was frivolous compared to that of a world leader who fought for peace and civil rights and against hunger. Frost was a guy who was basically just trying to tell stories and be an entertainer.”
In playing David Frost, Widdall is following in the footsteps of not only the late broadcaster himself, but of Michael Sheen’s performance opposite Frank Langella’s Nixon (who will be played in this production by Dan Olmstead) in Ron Howard’s Academy Award-nominated 2008 film. “Normally when an actor creates a character it always starts from the inside, with goals, motivations and obstacles,” he says. “When I’m playing historical figures, I also work backwards — what do they look like, what do they sound like and, most importantly, how do people remember them? David Frost was just big. He lived on screen; he lived to be on television. The idea of playing people who actually lived gives you a certain responsibility as an actor to give these people a fair shake.”
Placed in the context of New City’s current season, which continues in March with Ginger Dayle’s new play “Hinckley,” about the would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan, “Frost/Nixon” offers a picture of a nation in transition. Where “RFK” showed a promise cut short, this piece presents a roadblock to much-needed change. “We were just getting out of Vietnam and were looking for a change,” Widdall says. “We were looking for our great future to begin and everything got put on hold because of this problem with our president. ‘Frost/Nixon’ tells how that political story became a story for everyone in the popular culture to digest.”