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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
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
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
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
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
and polarizing point of view. However, Vidal makes sure that in
— 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
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
Gray seems merely content to create a character out of his
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
embroidered relationship with his wife (He calls her "mama
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
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
informer who fingers Cantwell. Mark Blum makes a good impression as
Dick Jenson, Russell’s unscrupulous campaign manager. Theoni V.
costumes, especially for Ebersole, are stylish and flattering. John
Arnone’s setting is clever union of hotel and convention hall
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?
— Simon Saltzman
52 Street, New York. Tele-Charge: 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.
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