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A CurtainUp Review

Gore Vidal's The Best Man
Political conventions today are not what they used to be. There was a time when politics was played openly on the convention floor for the elucidation, delight, and occasionally dismay of the American People. This is the way it could have been in 1960, in Philadelphia, in a different world that, somehow, has not changed all that much.
-- Walter Cronkite/ Gore Vidal

Life is not a popularity contest -- neither is politics
-- former Secretary of State and wannabe president William Russell

Secretary Russell's (Spalding Gray) little sermon about life and politics notwithstanding, he is indeed enmeshed in a popularity contest, as presidential candidates continue to be even forty years after The Best Man opened on Broadway. Intelligence and the ability to spout or quote clever aphorism has never ranked high in winning the sort of popularity needed to transform presidential hopeful into President elect. And even the best of men often find themselves drawn into mud-slinging or, as it's now called, negative campaigning.

That brings us to Russell's opponent, Senator Joseph Cantwell (Chris Noth) who's had a rockier ride to the corridors of power. Cantwell has no problem with casting a fistful of mud to shake public confidence in Russell's mental stability. His aggressive blonde bombshell of a wife Mabel (Christine Ebersole) is as gungho as he to live in the White House -- but then ambition also drives the high-minded Russell and his staid and refined wife Alice (Michael Learned).

So which of these men will ex-president Arthur Hockstader (Charles Durning) endorse? Which one's aide-de-camp (Mark Bloom, as Russell's, and Jordan Lage as Cantwell's) has hitched his wagon to the best man (best meaning winning contender)? And regardless of how this behind-the-scenes melodrama ends, does it warrant this lavishly staged revival?

As Cronkite, via Gore Vidal, notes the process may have changed, but not the issues. The question of a candidate's character and of holding onto one's moral integrity while pursuing power are as pertinent as ever. Vidal's way with words is undisputed even though some of those words and his allusions are decidedly dated. (I was tempted to do a little exit poll and ask anyone under forty if they knew Jack Paar). Today's audiences no longer have the fun of matching Vidal's characters to politicians still in the headlines (John F. Kennedy who, with Adlai Stevenson, was a role model for Russell, attended the original opening). Yet there are enough vintage 2000 politicians to fit Vidal's 1960 political types.

As for production, while a young playwright doing a political play today (any play, for that matter) wouldn't dare to write for this many actors, the large cast turns out to be a decidedly mixed treat. As in another limited run big-name revival, The Man Who Came to Dinner, one wishes the director had found some way to keep John Arnone's rotating pair of hotel rooms from seeming like a train station at which various passengers make attention-getting stops. Some who pass through and make strong impressions are Elizabeth Ashley, who has two funny scenes as an influential committee woman, and Jonathan Hadary who shows up twice as a threatening presence from Senator Cantwell's past. This sense of people moving around without going anywhere is more pronounced in the first act than the stronger and better paced second act.

The casting of monologist Spalding Gray as the Adlai Stevenson-Kennedyesque Russell is intriguing enough to offset comparisons to Melvin Douglas's Tony-winning portrayal or Henry Fonda's film version. The same is true for Chris Noth as the hunky Mr. Big of "Sex and the City" playing the smarmy Nixonesque Cantwell. The candidate's wives are also cast with tongue-in-check cleverness -- especially Christine Ebersole who is a look-alike Pat Nixon (with considerable help from the 1960 production's costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge), but with enough brassy charm to make you wish Vidal had updated the play and made her the candidate. (There is, in fact, a Mary Cantwell currently running for the Senate from Washington state!)

Good as these actors are, only Charles Durning manages to give a fully rounded, flesh and blood character rendering as the dying president who has a last fling at the political maneuvering and arm twisting he loves. Mark Blum and Jordan Lage do their usual good work as the politician's aides. Unfortunately the various reporters and delegates who hover around the edges of the proceedings, as well as the periodic flashes of the convention hall popping out from the corners of the semi-naturalistic set brought to mind Ethan McSweeny's much more inspired work with set designer and extras in his award winning staging of Never The Sinner. The scrim curtain with its photomontage of the convention crowd comes closest to the feel of that play.

The decision to present this revival true to the original is probably correct, since Vidal's previous diddlings only led to a not very successful revival in California. Since Mr. Vidal is happily alive and well and still writing, it would be nice to have him forget about what was but to write us a completely new play -- he might find working with a less sprawling canvas for fewer actors an inspiring experience.

Never the Sinner -- DC. . .Never the Sinner (NYC) 
Ethan McSweeny interview, Part 1 . . . Part 2
Gore Vidal: A Biography by Fred Kaplan talks about the genesis of this play, as well as everything else you could possibly know about Vidal's celebrity filled life as essayist, novelist, playwright, political candidate, television personality.

Gore Vidal's THE BEST MAN
by Gore Vidal
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Starring (in order of appearance): Spalding Gray as William Russell, Michael Learned as Alice Russell, Mark Blum as Dick Jensen, Kate Hampton as Catherine, Chris Noth as Joseph Cantwell, Christine Ebersole as Mabel Cantwell, Jordan Lage as Don Blades, Charles Durning as Arthur Hockstader, Elizabeth Ashley as Sue-Ellen Gammadge, Ed Dixon as Clyde Carlin, Michael Rudko as Dr. Artinian, Jonathan Hadary as Sheldon Marcus.
With: Joseph Culliton, Joseph Costa, Patricia Hodges, C.J. Wilson, Lee Mark Nelson and the voice of Walter Cronkite.
Set Design: John Arnone
Lighting Design: Howell Binkley
Costume Design: Theoni V. Aldredge
Sound Design: David Van Tieghem
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with intermission
Virginia, 245 W. 52d St. (7th/8th Avs) 239-6200
9/05/2000-12/31/2000; opening 9/17/2000.

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based

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