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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This is one of my favorite plays so I was very excited to see it again. While the play is still as compelling as ever, I thought this production suffered from too much star casting, with performances that weren't always in tune with one another. John Larroquette seemed incredibly stiff and humorless as Russell. Spaulding Gray was much better in the last revival. Michael McKean and Jefferson Mays were so good but wasted in supporting roles. Either of them would have made a better Russell. Candice Bergen seemed incredibly uncomfortable and nervous on stage. She had numerous odd line readings, where she would emphasize strange words. Very disappointing to see her so out of her element. When Bergen and Larroquette shared scenes alone on stage, the production would grind to a halt. They each often seemed to be struggling to remember their lines. James Earl Jones was pretty good though difficult to understand at times. Angela Lansbury was fun and memorable in a small role. Eric McCormack and Kerry Butler were actually quite good in the more colorful roles in the play. While every effort was made to transform the theatre into the vibe of a political convention, this feeling only occasionally found its way on stage. The set was quite impressive with seamless use of turntables. This is a really great play, one of my favorites, so it's worth seeing if you've never seen it, but it's not the strongest production I've seen. I think the who's who of stunt casting, even with some of the more effective performances, just distracted from the piece.