Ya gotta have a gimmick -- especially if you’re a Broadway play about to face more competition going into the heart of the fall season. The Best Man, a revival of Gore Vidal’s 1960 political drama, got mixed-to strongly positive reviews when it opened Sept. 17, and the box office has been pretty brisk for the $1.9 million production. But the only other new Broadway show it’s faced in the past month has been The Man Who Came To Dinner, whereas the next four weeks will see Vidal’s drama fend off Proof, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, The Full Monty, The Dinner Party, The Rocky Horror Show and, sets and second-act fixing assumed, Seussical.
One way to keep the show in the papers and on theatregoers’ minds is with a promotional gimmick. And what more appropriate gambit in these pre election times than a voting booth inside the theatre? Starting Oct. 11, audience members at The Best Man can step into an actual voting booth installed in the lobby of the Virginia Theatre. Before the show or during intermission, people can vote for the President (Gore, Bush, Nader, etc.) and New York Senator (Clinton, Lazio, etc.) of their choice. Production spokespersons at the Jeffrey Richards press office assure that “someone from the Board of Elections will be at the theatre” to count the votes, which will be tallied all together at the end of two weeks, with the winners announced by the show’s producers.
Casting votes is an appropriate activity for The Best Man, since the show is set at a 1960 primary, wherein puritannical, muck-raking conservative Senator Joseph Cantwell runs against smart, humane but philandering, ineffectual and possibly unstable Secretary William Russell.
The Best Man opened Sept. 17 for a limited run through Dec. 31.
Various reports have noted that ticket sales have been brisk since the box office opened for this star-studded revival, which began previews Sept. 5. (Variety reported, Sept. 4, that advance sales on the $1.9 million production nearly reached $1 million. A Sept. 27 report in the New York Post noted that daily ticket sales have been in the $60-70,000 range and quoted spokesperson Richards as saying, "I don't like to exaggerate, but we are doing really well." For the week ending Oct. 1, The Best Man grossed $354,286, filling only 65.08 percent of capacity. It was a sharp drop from the show’s usual $400K-plus weekly earnings -- and in line with nearly every other show on Broadway slumping that week, possibly owing to the Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah, starting on Friday night, Sept. 29.) 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 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, was released by Doubleday on Sept. 15.]
For tickets and information on The Best Man at the Virginia Theatre call (212) 239-6200.