by: Sandi Durell

The writings may be 52 years old, but the political machinery from the 1960 campaigns are more than relevant today. When a revival hits all the right buttons, then the realization is that it is timeless and that’s just what Gore Vidal had in mind.

Those smarmy, blood suckers on the campaign trails haven’t changed a bit; they’ve only toughened through time. Do or say anything to get the vote with gleeful lip-smacking. And director, Michael Wilson, made certain to infuse the mud-slinging to its fullest with a knockout cast. The plate of talent is over-flowing in this wry and witty production.

From the moment one enters the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, you’re ensconced in the Philadelphia Nominating Convention replete with delegate banners, American flags, TV screens while the background sounds of marching band music and roaring crowds fill your ears. The ushers are also appropriately attired in the red-white-blue.

The story is about two candidates, the impeccably cast John Larroquette as Secretary of State William Russell, a liberal thinking Harvard grad with a conscience in this horse race against southerner, Senator Joe Cantwell, a state college grad who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, with the conscience of a rat, played convincingly byEric McCormack. Whatever it takes to win, is Cantwell’s mantra as he is ready to destroy his opponent with stolen medical records from Russell’s past that could damage him irrevocably. Russell is reluctant to use recently uncovered information against Cantwell, brought to his campaign manager Dick Jensen, a faultless Michael McKean, by Cantwell’s old Army buddy (and I use that word loosely), Sheldon Marcus, played by the nervously perspiring well-cast Jefferson Mays. It’s kill or be killed.

Cantwell’s southern belle wife Mabel, who looks more like a young floozie, and acts the part, is the adorable Kerry Butler who is a bit caricaturized but effective as she sinks her claws into Alice Russell (Candice Bergen), estranged wife of Bill Russell, who has come to support his effort for the Presidency even though they have been apart because of his womanizing (sound familiar!) and she has an aversion to politics. Ms. Bergen is sometimes taut in her delivery but it all works as her sardonic humor comes through, as it did for many years as TV’s “Murphy Brown.”

The thunderous applause resounds, however, when James Earl Jones as former President Artie Hockstader, and Angela Lansbury, as Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge (Chair of the Women’s Division) enter. Color-blind casting aside, Jones is the epitome of a hand-wringing conspirator who loves a political battle, as each of the candidates awaits his endorsement. Hockstader is terminally ill and his downward spiral is quick, but not before he raises a little hell. It’s a joyful pleasure to watch this great actor at work. Although we barely have enough of Ms. Lansbury, her colorful character, as a blunt, forceful and dogmatic leader of women makes its point as she recites what the women of America like and don’t like. To see these two octogenarians together on stage is a priceless moment in time.

The play unfolds in a fabulously designed (Derek McLane) hotel suite of two rooms, that turn in and out, appropriately furnished including portraits of Lincoln and Washington, with well-designed costumes by Ann Roth and subtle lighting by Kenneth Posner.

Vidal certainly had all his political ducks in a row when he wrote this. And it’s easy to see nothing has changed, only worsened, in our political arena of back-stabbing, deal making and brutal ambition at the expense of the voters. So . . . . may The Best Man win!

Photo: Joan Marcus