The fall season on Broadway gets off to an unsteady start with the new revival of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man.” A political drama-cum-civics lesson that takes place behind the scenes at a presidential convention, “The Best Man” may not be a particularly prime piece of dramatic literature, but even less-than-choice cuts need to be prepared properly; director Ethan McSweeney’s production is seriously undercooked. A central piece of miscasting is partly to blame, but the tentative nature of the entire performance is clear evidence of a young director lacking the time, ability or experience (possibly all three) to capitalize on a stageful of talent.
The time is 1960 (the year of the play’s debut), the place a Philadelphia hotel hosting the presidential convention of an unnamed party. The two front-runners are preparing to do battle in their hotel suites for key delegates as the convention roars in the background. (This was back in the antediluvian days when conventions weren’t merely party infomercials.)
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Vidal’s good guy is William Russell (Spalding Gray), loosely based on the idealistic, gentlemanly Adlai Stevenson, with a frosting of philandering tendencies we can assume were a winking reference to Joseph Kennedy. The bad guy is Joseph Cantwell (Chris Noth), a senator with Nixonian aspects — Cantwell uses the Mafia the way Nixon used Commies — and a voracious ambition untinged by moral niceties.
They are accompanied by wives with matching morals: Alice Russell (Michael Learned) is a gracious woman who nobly plays the role of loving spouse, despite her estrangement from a husband who no longer finds her sexually attractive. Mabel Cantwell (Christine Ebersole), by contrast, is a gauche Southern belle with the killer instincts of a born politician, a Lady Macbeth of the Magnolias.
The drama turns on Cantwell’s attempt to derail Russell’s campaign by disseminating information about the former secretary of state’s mental breakdown of a few years back; Russell’s allies urge him to fight fire with fire when a tidbit about Cantwell’s court martial on charges of homosexuality surfaces.
Vidal was, of course, an astute and witty observer of the political circus, and the play is full of tart quips about the debasement of the country’s political discourse. They mostly retain their sting, although we laugh now more at their prescience than their provocativeness. “Life isn’t a popularity contest; neither is politics,” says Russell in the opening scene to chortles that surely weren’t heard in 1960.
When Arthur Hockstader (Charles Durning), the ex-president whose support both candidates are courting, observes that times have changed since the days of his campaign, when “you had to pour God over everything, like ketchup,” the laugh it brings is an acknowledgment that times have changed yet again. Jokes about presidents pawing girls in the White House get their laughs for the opposite reason, of course.
But while it retains some of its vitality as a witty op-ed piece flecked with still-relevant observations on political culture, Vidal’s play doesn’t have much enduring value as drama. Prose was Vidal’s proper metier, and it shows here: His characters speak in crisp, meticulously phrased little nuggets of wit or wisdom that bear scant resemblance to natural speech. This may not have been as noticeable in 1960, when old-fashioned three-act plays still thrived on Broadway, but today his dialogue sounds unremittingly stiff.
Fully realized performances might have gone some way to rubbing the square edges off some scenes, but there are few to be found on the Virginia Theater stage (which is itself a problem: the play would surely have fared better in a smaller house). Under the aimless direction of McSweeney, whose major prior credit is Off Broadway’s “Never the Sinner,” scenes lack the proper rhythm and shape, and the actors often seem to be scarcely engaged with one another. The production plays like an early rehearsal.
Most misused is Gray, who is thoroughly inappropriate as the noble Russell, a man given to dispensing sermons, and one who actually practices what he preaches. Perhaps the intention was to undercut Russell’s righteousness, which is harder to take seriously in our more cynical age. But the character is a void if he isn’t convincing in his tenacious goodness, and as played by Gray, who seems to be smirking inside as he limply delivers Russell’s high-minded homilies, he definitely isn’t.
Nor is Noth’s Cantwell compelling or conniving enough to be the “snake” described in the text. The actor, best known for his appearances on TV’s “Sex and the City” and “Law and Order,” plays the role capably but without the seething edge required. (Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson were ideally cast as Russell and Cantwell, respectively, in the film version of the play.) Elizabeth Ashley merely flounces through her small role as the manipulative leader of a women’s caucus, though little else is required. Most dispiriting of all is Durning’s shaky performance in the potentially rich role of Hocksteder, a plain-spoken man-of-the-people who has some of the play’s snappiest dialogue. Durning had serious trouble with lines at the first press preview, and his performance was accordingly unfocused.
It’s left to some of the more minor players to give the kind of crisply articulated performances that we expect to find from such an accomplished cast. Ed Dixon is pitch-perfect in his brief scenes as a cynical senator. Jonathan Hadary cringes colorfully as Sheldon Marcus, the informer who brings news of Cantwell’s controversial past.
Above all there is Ebersole, a major godsend as the colorful Mabel. This talented comic actress is the lively focus of every scene she’s in, and even gets the best of Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes. Ebersole is also virtually alone in making a real connection to her character and her fellow performers, and it pays off handsomely. Indeed, Mabel’s canny manipulation of everyone around her and her vivacious, ingratiating charm make you wonder why no one notices she’s the one with the most political potential in the room. This was 1960, of course, but in 2000, we can be forgiven for wishing that Mabel would commandeer the convention for herself; Ebersole handily does the same with the production.