Showing the kind of synergistic timing any electoral candidate would kill for, the Broadway revival of Gore Vidal's 1960 political drama, The Best Man, started rehearsals the day after the Republican Convention officially began in Philadelphia. The star-studded revival of The Best Man began its first day with the kind of press meet-n'-greet usually reserved for candidates.
[Note: Though the original title of the play was The Best Man, producers are calling 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, will be released by Doubleday on Sept. 15.]
Performances of The Best Man are set to begin Sept. 5 at the Virginia Theatre. Opening night will be Sept. 17 for a limited run through Dec. 31, according to production spokesperson and co-producer Jeffrey Richards.
With author Vidal's every move recorded by a looming video camera and still photographer, the Aug. 1 press gathering began with director Ethan McSweeny welcoming the cast and showing off a model of John Arnone's set design. McSweeny noted that the set would include period posters and broadsheets, and that Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes would also be of the period. (The deja vu is especially appropriate there, as Aldredge designed costumes for the original Broadway production of The Best Man -- it was her second Broadway job.)
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. 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. Owing to minor surgery, Durning missed the opening day of Best Man rehearsals, but he's expected back shortly, according to a spokesperson from the Jeffrey Richards press office. (Vidal will be reading Durning's part during the first read-through.) The play has not been adapted or modernized for this production; however, Vidal has added a few lines from Franklin Schaffner's 1964 film, according to actress Learned.
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 is to play presidential candidate William Russell to Durning's President Hockstader.
Last on Broadway in The Sisters Rosensweig, four-time Emmy winner Learned will play 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.
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.
Actress Learned told Playbill On-Line her character in the play is something of a composite of political wives, women who "appear to be shy and retiring, but there's steel and iron under that... We have all these intelligent, capable women, but we've never had a woman leader." Asked about her own political leanings, Learned said, "I'm naive politically...naively cynical."
Jordan Lage, an Atlantic Theatre Company veteran, echoed Learned's cynicism about politics. "I was traveling, so I missed the convention on TV last night, but during the pre-stuff in Philadelphia, every night I'm tearing my hair out over George W. It's the same old hypocrisy and dirty tricks. You can't help but see parallels with what Gore [Vidal] has written. There's no candidate who says, `Here I am. This is what I stand for: upholding the Constitution. What the job is all about. Instead, it's all agendas and special interests."
Not one to mince words, Chris Noth said the current political scene made for "an easy choice: you have to be a Democrat. I like Colin Powell [who delivered a strong and racially challenging speech at the GOP convention the night before] and I'd vote for him, but not for Bush or Cheney. Look at Cheney's record -- he's the anti-Christ."
Noth noted that even back in 1960, the play realized that "America seems to insist that candidates portray themselves as saints, morally above it all. And we're bamboozled by it. There's no worry that these people are all pure ambition and lust for power."
At the first-day press event, director McSweeny (OB's Never the Sinner, Side Man at MN's Guthrie Theatre), likening author Vidal to "an American Shaw," told another journalist the play is especially timely because "politics is becoming more and more like entertainment, and entertainment is becoming more interested in politics. The success of `West Wing,' for example." Still, he's keeping the milieu set in 1960 "because conventions have changed so much over the years. Back then it was a truly open convention, and there was a floor fight between Kennedy and Stevenson."
As for the show's physical look, back in 1960, fresh from her very first Broadway assignment -- designing the costumes for Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth -- designer Aldredge went to her next Broadway assignment: Vidal's The Best Man. She now returns to garb this version, four decades and several Tonys later (including La Cage aux Folles, Annie and 42nd Street). The aforementioned John Arnone (Tommy) is designing the sets, Howell Binkley Parade) the lighting.
The Virginia Theatre booking for Best Man is a bit of a surprise, given the venue's recent reputation as a musical house. The theatre's last two tenants were, briefly, Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party, and Smokey Joe's Cafe, which ran there for five years. Previous years saw the theatre house J.B., Spofford, and the Henry Fonda revival of Our Town.
For tickets and information on The Best Man at the Virginia Theatre call (212) 239-6200.