From the first entrance of a candidate and his “entourage” into a tacky hotel room (Richard Olmstead’s set), surrounded by reporters, with the sound of a crowd outside the quickly shut door, to the final cliffhanger of an instruction phoned in to a delegation that changes the voting of a deadlocked convention, the Aurora’s timely revival of The Best Man, Gore Vidal’s 1960 play about politicians, their wives, their flacks and operatives—and their pasts, their secrets—is played out with clockwork timing that emphasizes Vidal’s wit and the inexorable grinding of the great public machine in the convention hall outside the private little rooms, where the decisions and their stakes are mulled, joshed at—and sparred over.
Artistic director Tom Ross presides over a cast with real depth, some taking on a pair of roles, each adding to the ensemble effect of the tensions and stresses—private made public and vice versa—that lift this commercially successful play (made into a film five years later with Henry Fonda; Ronald Reagan was rejected for a part because he didn’t have “that presidential look”) above potboiler status, its well-wrought plot and characters succeeding in making a simulacrum of the craziness and calculation of that “best laid plans” sprint to the nomination
It’s an idealized simulacrum. When John Kennedy—assured the philandering of the principal character wasn’t a reflection of his own—critiqued the play to Vidal (Tom Ross quotes Vidal’s memoir in his notes), he remarked that there was never any time while campaigning to indulge in the ruminations that fill the rooms like smoke, interspersing the action. Vidal said he replied that no audience would understand the shorthand politicos express themselves in. JFK laughed, then gave another insider’s piquant remark: “When a politician says to you, ‘Jack, if there’s anything I can do for you, just let me know,’ that means you’re dead.”
There’s much of that kind of inadvertently—and very advertent—ironic shoptalk, as fortunes change quickly with rumor, both floating and planted. Vidal’s ear is tuned to the idiom, and he’s able to make both soliloquies and exchanges out of it, with something of the Wildean touch for bon mots—and acid raggings.
His background in TV and mystery writing (gained when he was effectively blackballed as a novelist and celebrity from mention in the press and welcomed in publishing houses because of his work’s “degeneracy”) comes through strongly in the constant machinations of the plot, which both absorb and provide a podium for the remarks he must have savored.
Charles Shaw Robinson plays the part of Secretary William Russell, catching the particular air of the meditative intellectual and very private man who thrusts himself into public life. He quotes Bertrand Russell (“no relation,” though he agrees his homonym was fired from an American college faculty, “but only for moral turpitude”) and promises his manager (a good, stolid Michael Patrick Gaffney) he’ll only project blandness in the future.
This is an irony in itself. The part of Bill Russell, loaded with witticisms, stiffened with the applied odor—or fragrance—of potential scandal—can’t escape the blandness of the theatrically heroic leading man. Shaw Robinnson uses every bit of his considerable ability to give the candidate nuance, and does, without breaking his Ivy League demeanor. Emilie Talbot has something of the same problem with the role of Russell’s estranged wife Alice, and also acquits herself admirably. They appear, almost effortlessly, to have that gloss, that slight, stiff remoteness of a First Couple during the postwar, pre-Vietnam—and “Nixonian”—era.
Their opposite numbers: number two and trying harder, with each self-serving, sickly-sweet coated barb he can fling, and the smarmy remarks she can churn out with a drawl, a cigarette and a lipstick smile—are Senator Joseph Cantwell and his wife, Mabel, played with comic verve and deadliness by Tim Kniffen and Deb Fink. If the others are political animals, they’re beasts in the jungle, and they lend the play its ballast of ferocity and low comedy.
It’s one of the nicest of many ironies that “the last of the great hicks,” secretly-moribund President Art Hockstader (a gleefully, professionally hypocritical ex-farmboy political oldtimer from the days “you had to pour God over everything like ketchup,” played with humorous brio by Charles Dean) is almost set to endorse the underdog, only to be piqued by the cluelessness of his voracious ambition and lack of ethics (and judgment). The accent is on cluelessness—he doesn’t have that presidential deadpan, the president intones—though he grows irritated with his secretary of state for Hamletizing, for not seizing the moment to out-smear the smearer and grasp the ring.
The others—Elizabeth Benedict as Mrs. Gammage, the Southern Party creature, who gushes that she “loves eggheads in politics!”, Brendan Kussman, Michael Cassidy, and a slightly slimy and too-eager-to-please Jackson Davis as Cantwell’s old Army buddy—who come to tell all that happened in the Aleutians (where Vidal was based, and his “degenerate” works set) are just as on top of their game as the principals.
It’s a great and thoughtful—and timely—entertainment, combining the rapaciousness and reflectiveness public life conjures up: looking in the mirror, Russell extemporizes, “Is there anything more indecent than the human face when it smiles? All the predatory teeth of our animal relations!” Political animals, indeed. To which his manager throws a caution: No Darwin, no evolution ...
THE BEST MAN
8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday;
2 and 7 p.m. Sunday at the Aurora Theatre,
2081 Addison St. $40-$42. 843-4822.