At last, a witty, sharp, thoroughly enjoyable Broadway play about the current state of American politics. Pity it was written in 1959. In its content, Gore Vidal's "The Best Man" is extraordinarily fresh and relevant. In its form, it shows its age. It tells us two things. One is that presidential politics have changed remarkably little in the last four decades. The other is that theater has changed a lot. On the surface, Vidal's acerbic drama belongs to its own time. The action depends on the long-dead notion that a party convention actually selects the presidential candidate. The two contenders, East Coast intellectual Bill Russell and power-hungry Sen. Joe Cantwell, are clearly based on Adlai Stevenson and Richard Nixon. The dying ex-president Arthur Hockstader, whose endorsement could decide their fate, is a down-home populist in the Harry Truman mold. But these vestiges of the 1950s date the play far less than might be expected. When today's audience hears of a would-be President whose biggest problem will be sneaking girls into the White House, of a political marriage whose facade of togetherness is purely for public consumption, of candidates digging up each other's buried sins, it's not the distant past that will come to mind. Vidal's concerns, indeed, could hardly be more relevant. How much, he is asking, does "character" really matter in a President? And is the pursuit of power at all compatible with moral integrity? The hard-nosed Cantwell tries to force Russell out of the race by threatening to release psychiatric records that reveal a nervous breakdown and compulsive womanizing. The morally fastidious Russell has to decide whether to retaliate with evidence of a homosexual scandal in Cantwell's past. All of this is beautifully observed through Vidal's keenly sceptical and often merciless eye. What the dialogue lacks in spontaneity, it makes up in splendidly bitchy humor. As Russell, Spalding Gray wraps a fey, deadpan Ivy League charm around a core of essential decency, to make a complex and compelling character. He manages, intriguingly, to suggest that, although Cantwell's allegations of mental instability are not true, neither are they entirely false. Because he has less to work with, Chris Noth's Cantwell is even more impressive. Though cynical and egotistical, he also projects a needy, boyish vulnerability that competes effectively with his rival's rather haughty elegance. And though, as Hockstader, Charles Durning does not quite radiate the regal authority of a political legend, the chemistry between the three men has the makings of a powerful dramatic reaction. Ethan McSweeny's production is also beautifully served by the rest of the cast, especially Christine Ebersole and Michael Learned as the contrasting would-be First Ladies. Where the director fails, though, is with the rather clunky mechanics of the stagecraft. For while the political sensibility is very 21st century, the way of telling a story on stage remains stuck in the 19th. For an audience attuned to "The West Wing," the tortuous movement of an old-fashioned play like "The Best Man" is bound to present a problem. John Arnone's overdressed set makes that problem worse. The design and the direction force the actors to thread their way through some amazingly awkward spaces. The action, which needs to be made more fluid, instead becomes more fussy. This limits the pleasure of the piece, but it does not destroy it. For just as Vidal's insight overcomes the passage of time, the actors' skill escapes the confines of space. In the end, "The Best Man" offers both an invitation to nostalgia and a defense against it. Even while it destroys the illusion that presidential politics were purer in the past, it makes you pine for the time when Broadway was willing to expose politics to the scrutiny of wit, mockery and intelligence.
Foolishly, I thought it was that clever old Voltaire who first said: "The more things change, the more they are the same." Looking it up, I found it was the lesser-known Alphonse Karr.
And Karr's oddly cynical principle of plus ca change seems particularly true of politics and politicians. Think about it.
Thus Gore Vidal's engrossing 1960 political comedy melodrama, "The Best Man," now retitled, for some odd reason, "Gore Vidal's The Best Man" - which makes it sound as if it's promising some freakily egocentric excursion into autobiography - resurfaced last night in a beautifully acted production at the Virginia Theater.
It's still as topical as most of tomorrow's paid political announcements on TV - the good old days of cut, slash, malign, realign, sneer and smear remain with us like death and taxes.
Vidal, appropriately, has not seen fit to amend a word or phrase.
To be honest - one of those phrases politicians so favor - things have indeed changed somewhat since 1960, rather like furniture in a room. For example, Vidal's shenanigans are set in Philadelphia at an open nominating convention of what is clearly, although never specifically named, the Democratic Party.
Now, we haven't had an open presidential nominating convention, one that is not merely a coronation of the party's anointed, for many decades.
And, indeed, just a little of Vidal's still effervescent, sparkling dialogue now sounds somewhat dated. Yet politics' smoky back rooms, with their fumes of scotch and bourbon, where deals are dealt and contrivances contrived, still exist, even though doubtless no one smokes and designer water is the tipple of choice.
Vidal has given us a well-made boulevard comedy and one of the very few to deal overtly with the art and craft of American politics. To put it more bluntly, it is about mud-slinging, or what is now known as negative campaigning.
There is a good guy, a patrician with sound liberal principles, and a bad guy, lower-class, ambitious, ruthless and cursed with a 5 o'clock shadow that starts around 3 p.m.
An aging former president, a lovable drunk with his heart in the right place but his guts shot to pieces, is tantalizing both candidates with the possibility of an endorsement.
But suddenly all bets, previously favoring the charming, womanizing liberal, are off, as the bad guy announces his intention to release a mental-health report on his opponent, who once suffered a nervous breakdown - prophetic shades of the real-life vice-presidential candidate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, decades later.
Wait a minute! There is just possibly something in the bad guy's past that, if revealed or just suggested, would send Middle America (not to mention the rest of the country) reeling.
So that's it. Will our hero descend to the amoral level of his opponent's naked ambition? Will he sling dirt with the rest of the boys?
Actually, the morality is a little more fuzzy around the edges than Vidal seems to believe, but it's a good story ... and you certainly want to know what happens.
Vidal has decked out his sometimes obvious drama with zesty, zinging dialogue and composite portraits of politicians past - here and there, a touch of Adlai Stevenson, Richard Nixon, John Kennedy, Harry Truman - that cry out suggestively.
The present production is made all the more welcome by Ethan McSweeney's fast-paced staging and a sweetly balanced cast, in which you have such Broadway meisters as Mark Blum, Jonathan Hadary and, especially, the consummate Elizabeth Ashley in minor cameo roles.
As the noble liberal, Spalding Gray is excellent - up to a point. As I felt a few seasons back, about "Our Town," Gray, an absolute master of the one-on-one monologue, seems a little awkward inhabiting any skin other than his own.
Chris Noth (today, best-known as Mr. Big when he is having sex in the city!) as his power-driven antagonist, and a divinely vulgar Christine Ebersole and a divinely upper-class Michael Learned as the Washington wives, are all spot-on super.
But the play's best role is that of the aging ex-president, and as Tracy did before - though in a quite different, more belligerent fashion - the unsurpassable Charles Durning charges down all before him, like a pet rhinoceros in an Olympic mood.
A fun evening - more fun than any of those interminable talking-head TV shows, and politically probably much more relevant. So Vote for Vidal! He should never have given up the theater, as he did politics, as a lost cause.
When an ambitious young senator who would soon be president first saw ''The Best Man'' 40 years ago, he was quick to point out to its author that the play's vision of politicians wasn't exactly authentic. ''You know,'' John F. Kennedy is reported to have said to Gore Vidal, ''in a campaign we don't have all that much time to talk about the meaning of it all.''
Well, no, probably not. And the senator might well have gone on to observe that no American statesman, at least since the country's earliest years, is likely to have spouted the kind of elegant epigrams that Mr. Vidal's characters (the ones he likes, anyway) come up with extemporaneously.
Still, as current evidence makes narcotically clear, politicians can afford to be boring in ways that fictional characters cannot. And whatever the weaknesses of the unsteady revival that opened last night at the Virginia Theater under the amended title of ''Gore Vidal's 'The Best Man,' '' the production makes you wish that Mr. Vidal were writing the dialogue for the forthcoming, much-debated presidential debates.
Despite the notoriously short shelf life of satire in the theater, this morality tale of a national political convention still rings appealingly with the whip cracks of abiding worldly wisdom dispensed in quips. You can sense from the audience's gratified laughter that some of the play's shapely lines are sure to be repeated at cocktail parties in this election season, prefaced with something like, ''Old Gore Vidal said it best, 40 years ago.'' The observations made here on the very different and often incompatible virtues of good statesmanship and good politics, and of public and private morals, have aged surprisingly well, more like fine Bordeaux than Beaujolais. References to sexual escapades in the White House and to the role of God in campaigning are guaranteed to evoke smiles of recognition.
At its best the play brings to the backstabbing world of campaigning some of the artificial but bright verbal fire that two movies from the same period, ''All About Eve'' and ''The Sweet Smell of Success,'' brought to the backstabbing worlds of show business and journalism.
Unfortunately what those movies -- and to a lesser degree the 1964 film version of ''The Best Man'' -- have that this production does not is a rousing, melodramatic vigor. Led by Charles Durning, Spalding Gray and Christopher Noth, under the direction of Ethan McSweeney, the starry ensemble often gives off a frustratingly tentative quality.
The casting is sometimes wonderfully apt, especially in the surprising case of Mr. Gray, best known as a self-searching monologist, as a Brahminlike presidential candidate a la Adlai Stevenson. Yet the evening rarely finds the crackling, confrontational rhythms it needs. Tellingly, when Brooks Atkinson reviewed the original production in The New York Times, he admired the appropriateness of its being acted in ''the broad style of a political poster.''
It is bizarre to fault any production with the scenery-chomping Elizabeth Ashley, who has a small but vivid role here, for lacking broadness. But this ''Best Man'' does not have the conviction to be big. Without that confident, breakneck swagger, what has dated in ''The Best Man'' becomes too apparent: its formal, debatelike structure; the essential flatness of most of its characters and a raw streak of elitism that is pure Vidal.
For its first 10 minutes the production promises to turn into just the sort of hokey, bare-fisted word fight that you so long for it be. The arena is two suites (designed with a strange mix of naturalism and minimalism, with confusing invisible walls, by John Arnone) in a hotel in Philadelphia, where the convention is taking place.
The front-runner is Mr. Gray's William Russell, a former governor and secretary of state with a quick wit, a patrician sensibility, high ideals and a penchant for womanizing to which his rock-solid wife (Michael Learned) has long been resigned. In the other corner is Russell's crude, pragmatic opposite, Senator Joseph Cantwell (Mr. Noth), a self-styled pillar of virtue with working-class roots who is not averse to dirty campaigning. (Think Richard Nixon airbrushed into handsomeness).
Arbitrating between the two is the ex-president, Arthur Hockstader (Mr. Durning), an earthy Truman esque figure. The former president knows what it takes to run a country. He is also terminally ill. Mr. Vidal is obviously not above stacking the dramatic deck.
With a life, a presidential nomination and a marriage all hanging in the balance, ''The Best Man'' should be awash in tension. The advance press for the production has emphasized the appealing quaintness of an age in which nominating conventions were packed with drama and suspense. And Mr. Vidal ups the ante by having each candidate discover a potentially annihilating secret about the other's past.
Yet the anxiety onstage often seems to come more from the performers' uncertainty than from their characters' nail-biting ambition. This may be a consequence of a too-short rehearsal process and could, with time, partly right itself. Mr. Gray, Mr. Durning and Ms. Learned all have it in them to be first-rate in their roles. For the moment, however, only Mark Blum and Jordan Lage, as adversarial campaign managers, and Jonathan Hadary, as an uneasy figure from Cantwell's past, give off the heady nervousness that the audience is meant to feel vicariously.
There is no doubt as to where Mr. Vidal's sympathies lie. And his rendering of the classic dictum that character is fate makes the political destinies here a bit too easy to chart in advance.
Russell is a complex charmer, undone by his own ethics and his love of abstraction, and Mr. Gray delivers these traits with delightful, low-key eccentricity. Being an intellectual, given to quoting Bertrand Russell and Oliver Cromwell, he also gets the best lines. (On the politician's mandatory smile: ''All these predatory teeth, reminding us of our animal descent.'') In contrast Cantwell feels more like the product of a cynical cartoonist, all smooth surface and jagged self-interest.
Mr. Noth, best known as Sarah Jessica Parker's high-living lover in ''Sex and the City,'' never gives Cantwell the all-consuming, compulsive drive that would make him horribly irresistible. The variations on Nixonian tics, like bringing his hand nervously to his throat, have the imposed feeling of a director's suggestions.
As his shrill Southern wife, Christine Ebersole brings to mind a tin-plate version of the greedy sister-in-law from ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'' She is more fun to look at than to listen to, since she has been styled in the image of Pat Nixon by Theoni V. Aldredge, who also did the costumes for the original ''Best Man.''
In comparison Ms. Learned is refreshingly subdued, and with her air of fractured dignity she gives the evening some genuine tremors of emotion. So does Mr. Durning. Though he still had a shaky grasp of his lines on the night I saw him, he nonetheless had moments that broke through the gloss of the script to discover an affecting sense of mortality.
And of vitality, too. At the end of the first act, Mr. Durning's Hockstader, who has gone wan with pain, suddenly springs back to life when he learns of a new, knotty kink in the competition between Russell and Cantwell.
''Oh, I tell you Bill, I feel wonderful!'' he says to Russell. ''Up all night -- on the go all morning, seeing delegates -- I tell you there is nothing like a low-down political fight to put the roses in your cheeks.''
As Mr. Durning lustily renders the lines, they're a compelling argument for political adrenaline as a life force. For ''The Best Man'' to be the hearty entertainment it should and could be, this production needs to elevate its own pulse and to put the roses in its cheeks.
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.)
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.