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by Lucy Komisar
Spalding Gray, Mark Blum and Charles Durning deliberate over morality and power in Gore Vidal's "The Best Man." (Photo: Peter Cunningham)
Review: "The Best Man"The only thing dated about Gore Vidal's 1960 play, "The Best Man," is that presidential candidates are now decided by moneyed interests writing checks rather than by political horse-trading at convention.
by Gore Vidal, directed by Ethan McSweeny
Produced by Jeffrey Richards, Michael B. Rothfeld, Raymond J. Greenwald, Jerry Frankel, Darren Bagert
Virginia Theatre, 245 West 52 Street
Opened September 17, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar September 26, 2000
The nature of the candidates, some bright but equivocal, others unscrupulous hacks, doesn't seem to have changed at all. Inside the bland hotel room, the convention tv towers looming in the background and a gaggle of photographers lurching forward when the doors are opened, the candidates are then and now obsessed with image and deal-making.
Russell (Spalding Gray), the "good guy" intellectual, former secretary of state and governor of Rhode Island, has his wife at his side, though they're secretly separated. She's there because she likes the idea of being first lady, though she seems so bland, it's hard to believe she's fired by anything.
Vidal seems to have modeled Russell not only on Adlai Stevenson, but also on John Kennedy. Russell's wife jibes at an aide, "You're the one with a problem -- how to get girls into the White House, or will there be a place on K Street where he can meet girls?"
His rival Senator Cantwell (Chris Noth) is mediocre, dishonest, slimy, ruthless. Richard Nixon? He declares he wants to increase military spending and eliminate the income tax. Now, where have we heard that recently? He has held hearings to expose "the Lower East Side Mafia," but not the real crooks, who are his contributors. His wife is a sultry, albeit ditsy, Southerner. They call each other "papa bear" and "mama bear."
So, who will get the endorsement of the cynical, irascible ex-president (Charles Durning) who has a surprisingly ethical view of politics -- "there are no ends, only means" -- but understands that principle alone is not enough to win an election and manage the country. Vidal gives him some good lines, including a reminiscence about "the days when you had to pour God over everything, like ketchup." Did Vidal think those days were over?
The pot begins to boil when Cantwell dredges up some information that could damage Russell. No slouch, Russell finds some dirt of his own. It's not terribly realistic when the pontificating Russell demurs about using what he has on his rival.
With a plot that's as full of cliches as national politics, the play depends on the actors to bring it to life. It mostly succeeds.
Charles Durning is a brilliant ex-president Hockstader, managing to be avuncular and acerbic, cool and curmudgeonly at the same time. Chris Noth is a sharp-edged Cantwell, with the demeanor of a candidate, smooth, full of himself. Christine Ebersole creates a wonderfully nervous, almost pathetic wife Mabel, so eager for the White House she can taste it.
Among the supporting case, Elizabeth Ashley does a masterful cameo as the utterly perfect Texas national committeewoman, droning on about what "the women" do and don't like. Clyde Carlin's Southern senator is also very good; his moseying walk, posturing, and peacock chest should be bronzed.
And Jonathan Hadary, with a pitifully affected accent, is a Vidal joke of a straight Sheldon Marcus recalling an incident that involved "all these men together."
Unfortunately, Spalding Gray, who has the most important role, is flat and lackluster. You don't believe for a minute that he is a presidential candidate. It doesn't help that Vidal has him do some silly stuff about stepping on the leaf design of a carpet. He's such a ditherer, you wouldn't want him as president.
Michael Learned as his wife seems intelligent and solid (or maybe stolid), but perhaps it is just emblematic of Vidal's view of women (there are no really admirable ones in the play) that even she can't win our sympathy. And the relationship between Russell and his wife evokes no tension, no undercurrent on her side of anger or bitterness.
One feels a certain distance from the unfolding events. One is never altogether pulled into the story, never gripped by it. There isn't much subtlety in Ethan McSweeny's production, for all that one agrees with Gore Vidal's politics. [Komisar]
Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.
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