When most people bring up David Frost and Richard Nixon these days, they're referencing the 2007 Broadway show or the 2008 movie. Steve Leifer, however, goes back even further.
"I think I'm one of the few people in our cast and crew that was around during the Nixon presidency," said Leifer, who is playing the former U.S. president in "Frost/Nixon," opening Friday at Schenectady Civic Playhouse and running through Feb. 2. "I was around back then, and I remember Nixon and his wife leaving the White House and getting on the helicopter. But I really wasn't into politics that much and I didn't watch the original interviews when they aired."
The original interviews Leifer refers to are a series of televised conversations between Frost, the British talk show host, and Nixon, the disgraced president who resigned from office in 1974 before he was about to be impeached by the House of Representatives. Playwright Peter Morgan took those taped interviews and turned them into a stage play in 2007, with Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost. The pair reprised their roles in the Hollywood movie the following year, and both stage and screen productions were huge successes.
"I think I'm the only member of our cast and crew that actually saw the show when it was originally on Broadway," said Leifer. "I found it riveting from beginning to end. I didn't see the movie and I'm not going to watch it now. I don't want to be influenced by any of that. I'm just reading the script, listening to the advice of our director and taking in the feedback I'm getting from the other actors onstage."
Evan Jones is directing the Schenectady Civic Players production, while Conrad T. Browne-Lorcher plays Frost.
"We have a cast made up of some real pros," said Leifer, a native of Brooklyn and longtime Capital Region resident who now lives in Scotia. "Most of them I knew from other shows and it's a real tight group."
Leifer won't be doing his best Nixon impersonation, but he will be trying to capture the essence of the man.
"I am doing the mere suggestion of the Nixon voice, his tone, so I'm not trying to be an impersonator," he said. "First of all, I don't have the ability to do that. And rather than portray him as a devil or victim, whatever you think he is, I am portraying him as a man who really believes that he is in the right and that he did nothing wrong. He believes that, and I'm just letting the audience make up their own mind."
This is Leifer's third consecutive production this 2019-2020 season, having performed in "Broadway Bound" and "Greetings," both at Curtain Call Theatre in Latham.
"This is my third show in a row, and it's a bona fide lead, so I'm going to be exhausted when we're done," said Leifer. "I'm going to take some time off. But I am lucky because I'm retired now and I was able to spend time during the day learning my lines. This is great fun, but it's also one heck of a job."
'Ben Butler' at Curtain Call
While Leifer and and Schenectady Civic revisit the Watergate era with "Frost/Nixon," another historical drama will be reenacted for the stage at Curtain Call Theatre. Patrick White will direct and Chris Foster will star in "Ben Butler," written by California playwright Richard Strang.
The show, which opened in New York in 2016 and was called "splendid" by the New York Times, is set during the Civil War at a Union Army garrison. The title character, Union Gen. Ben Butler, finds himself in a moral dilemma while dealing with runaway slaves.
"I wanted to do this play because, like the best American stories about America, it was about a historical figure and incident that I had never heard of before, told in a thrillingly, literate, theatrical way that speaks directly to our times," said White. "In Ben Butler, we have an ordinary man of inordinate intelligence, wit and compassion who is thrust into an extraordinary position and manages to screw his courage to the sticking place, and makes huge progress in toppling slavery, an American institution which is our original sin. It spoke to me spiritually, civically and emotionally in a very entertaining way."
Joining Foster onstage will be Michael Lake, Dennis Skiba and James Wild. Beth Ruman is the costume designer.
WHERE: Schenectady Civic Playhouse, 12 South Church St., Schenectady
WHEN: Opens Friday and runs through Feb. 2; performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $20
MORE INFO: (518) 382-2081 or www.civicplayers.org
WHERE: Curtain Call Theatre, 1 Jeanne Jugan Lane, Latham
WHEN: Opens Thursday and runs through Feb. 8; performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $25
MORE INFO: (518) 877-7529 or www.curtaincalltheatre.com