Last time Gore Vidal’s 1960 political potboiler was on Broadway, there was another presidential election under way: the 2000 contest. Back then, the play seemed like a perfect fit: The backroom showdown between thoughtful and sensitive ex–Secretary of State Bill Russell and dirty-fighting, callow Senator Joe Cantwell mapped neatly onto Gore and Bush, respectively. But this year? What theater piece could adequately capture the orgy of vileness that is the current race for the White House? Vulgar religious bigots, dead-eyed plutocrats, philandering boors; mounting Marat/Sade or Ubu Roi would be the proper artistic response to the political moment. And yet Jeffrey Richards (who was also behind the last revival of The Best Man) has brought the chestnut back, in a sterling production that makes a vibrant argument for Vidal’s perceptive look at the sad farce of choosing American leaders.
Michael Wilson shepherds a tight, propulsive staging; speeches pop and stakes remain high. Just as Wilson gets a blue-ribbon troupe of character actors all on the same page, he gathers the whole audience into the same convention hall: The house of the Schoenfeld is draped in patriotic bunting and signs announcing state delegations (Montana, California, etc.). John Gromada’s evocative sound design wraps us in a caucus-hum of speeches, cheering crowds and news reports. This environmental surround (primarily used during the intermissions) keeps our energy up and our minds focused on the goal as Vidal’s three-act amorality tale plays out.
The cast is stuffed with worthies having a blast: James Earl Jones as feisty ex-POTUS Arthur Hockstader; Angela Lansbury as the gimlet-eyed chair of a woman’s committee; and the blazing Jefferson Mays as a proto–Swift Boat mudslinger. Holding the center with grace and assurance are Eric McCormack and John Larroquette, both physically assured, perfectly cast leading men. Between two such complex, opposing forces, the choice is tough indeed.—David Cote
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