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Review: Gore Vidal once again proves a prophet

By Mark Kennedy
AP Drama Writer / April 1, 2012
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NEW YORK—Politics, the writer Gore Vidal once reminded us, is made up of two words: "`Poli,' which is Greek for `many,' and `tics,' which are bloodsucking insects." What was implied was also true -- that those same darn pests turn up year after year.

Now that the weather is warming up and this current election cycle is heating up, one of Vidal's timeless pieces of writing is buzzing once again. His 1960 play about rival presidential candidates, "The Best Man," opened Sunday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, sadly proving the writer astonishingly prescient.

Set in Philadelphia during a fictional 1960 national convention, "Gore Vidal's The Best Man" pits two candidates vying for their unnamed party's presidential nomination -- the East Coast intellectual Bill Russell, a former U.S. secretary of state, and the venal Tennessee Sen. Joe Cantwell.

The hard-nosed Cantwell, for whom the end always justifies the means, tries to force Russell out of the race by threatening to release embarrassing medical records. The morally fastidious Russell has to decide whether to retaliate with even more shocking evidence on his rival.

"One by one, these compromises, these small corruptions destroy character," Russell says. "Once this sort of thing starts, there is no end to it, which is why it should never begin."

You'll be clapping a lot during the 2 1/2-hour show -- mainly just to welcome an embarrassment of riches on stage: James Earl Jones. Angela Lansbury. John Larroquette. Candice Bergen. Eric McCormack. Michael McKean and Kerry Butler. It's like a greatest hits album on stage. Director Michael Wilson gives each a moment to shine and excitingly paces the play like a thriller.

Vidal's words may be more than 50 years old, but there are virtually no anachronistic bits. He predicted a political fight over the disclosure of medical records, negative campaigning, randy politicians, strained political marriages, first lady activism, arguments over mental fitness for office, elitism versus populism, the role of the Roman Catholic Church, poll-driven pols, pandering through religion and tax cuts, and even a political scuffle over birth control.

The quips flow freely and, with this cast, the satire is made archly delicious. "The terrible thing about running for President is you become a compulsive talker, forever answering questions no one has asked you," says Larroquette's Russell.

Larroquette is perfectly cast as a goodhearted Hamlet, who unfortunately for him, quotes Hamlet. "Don't try to be smart-alecky and talk over their heads," warns the powerful committee woman, played with doddering upper-crust charm by Lansbury.

In this thoughtful, still-idealistic man's corner is his estranged wife, who is played with a weariness by Bergen, and McKean as his campaign manager who is often exasperated by his boss' refusal to get down into the political mud.

McCormack plays Cantwell with the slickness and petulance of a man with unquenchable ambition, always ready for the next chess move even if no one else is playing. His wife, played with obvious delight by Butler, is bubbly but dangerously so -- underestimate her and you won't notice the knife sticking out of your back.

The biggest cheers are reserved for Jones, who plays an ailing, plainspoken former president whose endorsement both sides need desperately. He loves a good whiskey, recalls a political past when "you had to pour God over everything like ketchup," and especially comes to life when there's a knockdown battle on his hands.

"I tell you there is nothin' like a dirty-low-down political fight to put the roses in your cheeks," he says, and Jones seems to drop two decades as he says it.

This play was last on Broadway during the campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore and the subsequent legal battle in the fall of 2000. This edition -- unnecessarily re-titled with the author's name, perhaps to distinguish it from a play about a wedding -- will likely get a boost if the Republicans continue their long painful slog toward picking a presidential nominee.

All the action takes place over several days in a hotel and Derek McLane's revolving rooms are artfully and richly decorated with tasteful cream-colored furniture and plenty of oil paintings of Founding Fathers. A few nice touches transform theatergoers into convention participants, with ushers wearing red-white-and-blue hats, political signs sprinkled about and one of the theater's boxes converted into a broadcasting booth for an actor playing a newscaster to frame the scenes.

While Vidal clearly has sympathy for Russell, he betrays not a little admiration for Cantwell, too, making the play richer and fairer. In the end, Russell finds a creative solution to stop Cantwell from being nominated, but Vidal seems to be saying that it ultimately doesn't really matter who wins: Our public politicians all seem bland and selfless, very different from the spiky, power-mad private ones. Or, as Russell's wife's says, "We are all interchangeably inoffensive."

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