When Gore Vidal’s political comedy about an unnamed party trying to choose its presidential candidate first opened on Broadway in 1960, drawing connections between the characters and real-life political campaigners must have been well nigh irresistible. Fifty-two years later, in a star-studded production directed by Michael Wilson (The Orphans’ Home Cycle, Enchanted April), it’s still tempting to read the play as contemporary commentary – bearing testament either to the enduring nature of this pleasantly witty play or, more likely, to lasting relevance of the political maneuvering it depicts.
Consider the setup. It’s the party convention, Philadelphia, July 1960. Senator Bill Russell (John Larroquette) is an aristocratic, well-educated liberal with a history of public service and private philandering, despite his estranged but politically sympathetic wife Alice (Candice Bergen). His major rival for the nomination is Senator Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack), a slick, unscrupulous young up-and-comer who doesn’t smoke or drink but is willing to do whatever it takes to win, as is his brash, bleached wife and Southern belle manqué Mabel (Kerry Butler). Both candidates are also contending for the support of jovial ex-President Artie Hockstader (James Earl Jones), whose down-home affability doesn’t mean he’s not keeping his eye on the larger game.
Despite how 21st century it sounds, Wilson wisely makes no attempt to modernize the play. The references to Rockefeller, Stevenson and Nixon are all still there, and television is still a touch exotic. The impressive hotel-room sets and careful costumes also evoke a period piece, grounding the play in its historical moment. But that only emphasizes that the conflicts could just as well have been torn from tomorrow’s headlines, as the deadlocked candidates start to dig up each other's past, and decide what to do with the skeletons they unearth.
Larroquette has found a match for his intelligence and nuance in the complex role of Senator Russell, whose personal morals are so at odds with his political ideals, and McCormack brings an effective (and unnerving) gusto to his self-serving and snakelike senator. Angela Lansbury, as the folksy, pull-no-punches chairman of the Women’s Division, dispenses her wisdom and barbed wit to both candidates, while Jones, as the beloved past president, still commands the stage. The political wives aren’t given roles as meaty, but Bergen in particular plays the wronged wife with a bemused grace that somehow makes sense of her strange situation. And Jefferson Mays, always riveting, plays the smoking gun with a quivering self-consciousness that’s as mesmerizing as it is unsettling.
All these talents can’t disguise that this play is stronger in its pointed repartee and rueful asides than it is in any ultimate insights about our political system. But while it may not be a drama for the ages, its deprecatory humor and unflatteringly astute observation of an idealistic process run by flawed people make it a play for our age. And this spectacularly cast presentation may keep playgoers voting with their pocketbooks well into the end of this election year.