When a revival of The Best Man, started Broadway previews Sept. 5, who knew this year's presidential elections would be even uglier, stranger and more outlandish than the fictional political warring in the show? Who knew that Gore Vidal's 1960 drama of a humane but slightly neurotic Senator running against a fiery, muckraking Secretary for the party's nomination - complete with mud-slinging, last-minute leaks to the media, and a deadlocked voting block - would almost pale in comparison to Dubya versus Deadwood, TV news' over-eager predictions and a month of insane legal wrangling? Life not only imitated art, it mutated and mutilated it.
Still, audiences have just a couple more chances to look almost nostalgically at politics as it was played forty years ago. As scheduled, The Best Man ends its limited-run revival Dec. 31, after 15 previews and 121 regular performances. The play got mixed-to strongly positive reviews when the $1.9 million production opened Sept. 17 at the Virginia Theatre. Because the final week turned out to be one of the strongest grossing weeks of the show's run, management sources close to the production say that the entire investment will be returned.
The Best Man centers on Secretary Russell, a flawed but empathetic candidate hoping to get the party's nomination on the first ballot. Standing in his way is ruthless Senator Cantwell, a born politician - and muckraker. When Cantwell discovers that his opponent once had a nervous breakdown, he threatens to distribute copies of Russell's psychiatric reports to all the delegates. Russell's own team then come up with a little nasty background on Cantwell, but will their man stoop to that level of mudslinging? And will ex-President Hockstader endorse the better man, or the one more likely to win (and possibly more equipped to lead)?
Seventeen actors populate the cast of Best Man, with six leads: Charles Durning, Spalding Gray, Chris Noth, Elizabeth Ashley, Christine Ebersole and Michael Learned. Two veteran Broadway character actors, Jonathan Hadary and Mark Blum, are also in the cast, as are Ed Dixon, Jordan Lage, Michael Rudko, Joe Costa, Joseph Culliton, Kate Hampton, Patricia Hodges, Lee Mark Nelson and C. J. Wilson.
The original production of The Best Man opened at the Morosco Theatre March 31, 1960. Cast-members included Melvyn Douglas (who won a Best Actor Tony for playing Russell), Lee Tracy, Frank Lovejoy and Dana. Joseph Anthony directed the three-act drama, set at a 1960 Presidential Convention in Philadelphia. [Note: Though the original title of the play was The Best Man, producers titled this revival Gore Vidal's The Best Man to distinguish it in viewers' minds from the recent Taye Diggs film. Also, in another bit of coincidental good timing, Vidal's "The Golden Age," the final book in his series of historical novels, was released by Doubleday on Sept. 15.]
As for the performers, Durning's many theatre credits include the recent Broadway revivals of The Gin Game and Inherit the Wind, as well as last spring's Glengarry Glen Ross at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ.
The last time Gray appeared on a New York stage as part of anything other than one of his well-known and popular monologues, was as the Stage Manager in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Our Town in 1989. In Best Man, Gray plays presidential candidate William Russell to Durning's ex-President Hockstader.
Last on Broadway in The Sisters Rosensweig, four-time Emmy winner Learned plays Mrs. Russell, wife to Spalding Gray's character in the revival. Learned's stage roles include The Ride Down Mt. Morgan at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and, just recently, Ancestral Voices at NJ's George Street Theatre. The actress is still best known, however, for playing Depression-era Ma Walton on the popular '70s television show "The Waltons." Learned's supporting role in Best Man earned its original actress, Leora Dana, a Tony nomination.
Ashley is well known for her turns in Tennessee Williams plays, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer and The Red Devil Battery Sign. She recently appeared at Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre in Sweet Bird of Youth and in Off-Broadway's If Memory Serves.
Noth is the former star of "Law & Order" and now star of "Sex & the City." Ebersole, who plays his wife, was recently on view in David Marshall Grant's Off-Broadway play, Current Events, at Manhattan Theatre Club. Ebersole's career has included Broadway turns in Getting Away With Murder, Harrigan-n-Hart, Camelot (Richard Burton), Oklahoma and On the 20th Century. She has appeared in the Encores! musical concert series in Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, Lady In the Dark and Allegro.
Hadary, who plays a little nebbish with a big secret, appeared on Broadway in As Is, Angels in America and Gypsy, while Blum has graced Lost in Yonkers, Key Exchange and the recent drama, The Waverly Gallery.
Capitalizing on this year's election madness, the producers of The Best Man came up with the gimmick of putting a voting booth in the Virginia Theatre lobby. Starting Oct. 11, audience members at The Best Man could step into an actual voting booth and vote for candidates both Presidential (Gore, Bush, Nader, etc.) and Senatorial (Clinton, Lazio, etc.) of their choice. A Board of Elections rep tallied the votes (which, this being New York, went overwhelmingly for Gore / Clinton.) There were no chads.
As for author Vidal, Variety reports that he's working on adapting his novel, "Burr," for the stage, and that Jeffrey Richards is putting together a reading of Vidal's 1957 play, Visit to a Small Planet, with John Tillinger directing. "The reading will determine its future," Richards told Variety (Dec. 29).
For tickets and information on The Best Man at the Virginia Theatre call (212) 239-6200.