Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman is scheduled to appear in the

October 11, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

`Gore Vidal’s The Best Man’

The real question is not why "Gore Vidal’s The

Best Man" has a pretentious new moniker (it used to be called

simply "The Best Man"), but whether it is as topical, timely,

and titillating as it was on Broadway 40 years ago. The answer is

not quite. But it is still a good show.

What had been proclaimed politically provocative in its time is now

a little old hat. What was considered substantial and revelatory is

now indelibly lightweight. Vidal’s plot, that pits an ethical and

erudite senator William Russell against a no-holds barred, down and

dirty Senator Joseph Cantwell, can hardly be called inventive. Yet,

the battles of tongues and tempers, in the hands of Vidal, is a

consistently

witty one, and with plenty of winks at top political figures of the

time such as Adlai Stevenson and Richard Nixon. In retrospect, it

was a time when a candidate’s stand on domestic issues and foreign

policy appeared a little more important than a candidate’s TV

soundbites.

Nevertheless, "The Best Man" remains a genial, entertaining,

and for the most part, engaging look at politics in the good old days,

that is before everything at a convention was a done deal. There is

also no reason to disbelieve Vidal’s statement that he did not tamper

with a word (except for the title). Perhaps it is the quaintness of

the viciousness that makes the play as endearing as it seems today.

I did not get to see Charles Durning in the role of the slick and

cunning former President Arthur Harstader. On the night I attended,

Weather delayed his flight back to New York, and he was unable to

get to reach the theater. Ed Dixon, Durning’s understudy, assumed

the role and was terrific. Although I would have like to have seen

Durning play this part, I am in total agreement with the standing

ovation that was accorded Dixon at the curtain calls.

Dixon, who usually plays the smaller role of the cynical senator Clyde

Carlin, was totally in the driver’s seat as the manipulating

Harstader.

Though dying and in pain from cancer, his character significantly

enlivens the stakes between the two voraciously battling campaigning

front-runners. Dixon’s ungainly yet bearish stride and his insinuating

Southern drawl gave us a rich, colorful, and amusingly eccentric and

formidable character: one whose presence when gone is sorely missed.

A major error in casting renowned raconteur but non-actor, Spalding

Gray, in the central role of Senator William Russell, and spotty

direction

by Ethan McSweeney (who will begin his new appointment as associate

artistic director this season at the George Street Playhouse in New

Brunswick) do not help the cause. However, it is Vidal’s vote for

idealism and principals, and his disdain for unprincipled ambition,

that are the true guiding proponents of the play. Yes, it is a

one-sided

and polarizing point of view. However, Vidal makes sure that in

politics

— as in life — it’s the meanies who craftily keep everyone

on their toes.

What could be more amusing in this election year than oodles of snappy

and insinuating dialogue that earnestly and humorously recalls a time

when the delegates at a convention could actually surprise us with

their votes. The play is ripe with character assassinations and

disclosures,

mostly to do with matters sexual, and a plethora of flip political

quips. The scene is a Philadelphia hotel room during the time of the

nominating convention. Here, the likeable, liberal and idealistic

and married William Russell (Gray) is faced with the exposure of his

years as a philanderer. Unfortunately, Gray’s years as a monologist

has not sharpened his acting technique and it shows badly. Neither

convincing nor able to sustain the dramatic credibility of his

character,

Gray seems merely content to create a character out of his

off-handedly-delivered

sermons and bon mots. No dice.

His bete noir is the tough and treacherous Joseph Cantwell (Chris

Noth), whose gung-ho attack of Russell is contrasted against his

baby-talk

embroidered relationship with his wife (He calls her "mama

bear").

Noth, who is probably best know for his roles in TV’s "Law and

Order" and "Sex and the City," is the meanie, but tends

to soften the edges of Cantwell’s basically rotten underbelly. Noth

presents a somewhat muted portrait of this truly dangerous adversary,

even when threatened with the release of information regarding his

involvement in a homosexual incident in the army.

Standing and maneuvering smartly behind their husbands are the wives;

each in her own way passionately dedicated to their respective

husbands.

Michael Learned is grand as Russell’s wife Alice, a model of decorum

and refinement, even as she valiantly conceals to her husband and

to the world her true feelings about her sexless marriage. Christine

Ebersole sparkles as Cantwell’s sassy and politically perceptive wife

Mabel. Stealing every scene she is in, Ebersole makes you realize

every time she lets go with one of her steel-belted smiles what a

driving and significant force the equally ambitious woman behind her

man can be.

Other performances appear as colorful cameos. Elizabeth Ashley is

funny enough as the sashaying frou-frou frocked leader of a women’s

caucus. Jonathan Hadary is both scary and nutty as the mentally

unbalanced

informer who fingers Cantwell. Mark Blum makes a good impression as

Dick Jenson, Russell’s unscrupulous campaign manager. Theoni V.

Aldredge’s

costumes, especially for Ebersole, are stylish and flattering. John

Arnone’s setting is clever union of hotel and convention hall

activity.

This may not prove to be "The Best Man" we have been waiting

for. Nevertheless, as in politics, it will serve nicely until a better

man shows up. Do we have to wait another 40 years?

HHH

— Simon Saltzman

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, Virginia Theater, 245 West

52 Street, New York. Tele-Charge: 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.


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