A Windy Night 

Gore Vidal holds forth as only he can in Aurora production of The Best Man.

Gore Vidal's 1960 play The Best Man is all the rage all of a sudden. There was a Broadway revival back in 2000, starring Chris Noth and the late Spalding Gray. Now artistic director Tom Ross is staging it at Aurora Theatre, and almost no sooner does Aurora's production close than Role Players Ensemble Theatre puts on a community-theater production in Danville.

The connection is that these are all big election years — Kennedy vs. Nixon, Bush vs. Gore, and now Obama vs. McCain. Election-themed plays are popping up all over right now, between San Francisco Mime Troupe's Red State, Shotgun Players' Ubu for President, and the Willows' Lying in State. Thursday's opening night coincided with Barack Obama's convention speech, so Aurora wisely opted to start an hour early and screen the speech live for the audience afterward.

The fact that The Best Man's opening coincided with the Democratic National Convention is especially appropriate because that's more or less the setting of the play. It's the national convention of an unnamed political party, one powerful enough that it doesn't sound like there's much difference between nominating a candidate and electing him president. The nominee has yet to be decided, and front-runner William Russell is still hoping for the endorsement of ex-president Arthur Hockstader, for whom he served as Secretary of State. But ruthless rival Senator Joseph Cantwell has some dirt about Russell that he plans to smear, and the upright Russell is handed some even more explosive innuendo about Cantwell that he may have to compromise his principles to use, or lose the candidacy.

You'd be forgiven for not knowing that Vidal wrote plays at all, as he's rightfully better known for his essays on American politics and historical novels about Lincoln and Aaron Burr. If you're familiar with Vidal's political commentary, however, you'd have no trouble telling that he's the one who wrote the play. Largely made up of clever aphorisms woven together into civics speeches, the play and everyone in it sound a lot like Gore Vidal.

Ross makes the wise decision not to try to update the piece to take advantage of the tempting but incomplete parallels that suggest themselves in the contemporary political landscape. As little as some things change in electoral politics, many of Vidal's topical references in the play, while amusing to octogenarians, won't mean much to a young audience. Ross stages it as an early '60s period piece like TV's Mad Men, with fellas in gray suits and ladies in bright dresses and white gloves downing cocktails and puffing on fake cigarettes. (No air-quality warning necessary, aside from the usual danger of heavily perfumed patrons.) The illusion is made nearly complete by Cassandra Carpenter's sharp attire and Richard Olmsted's retro hotel room that doubles as both candidates' headquarters.

If the characters are basically types used by Vidal to illustrate a point, Ross's cast brings them alive admirably. As the patrician intellectual Russell, Charles Shaw Robinson embodies both the restrained poise and easy charm of that rarest of animals, an honest politician — so much so that it's hard to believe Russell has trouble keeping it in his pants. Charles Dean pours on the salty charm as Hockstader, a sly old dog who calls himself "the last of the great hicks." Tim Kniffen is marvelously animated as the outwardly pious opportunist Cantwell, who's crafty but not smart, although a little of his open-mouthed gormlessness goes a long way.

The wives almost say more about the husbands than the candidates do themselves. Emilie Talbot feelingly captures long-suffering, serious minded Alice Russell, who relates to husband Bill like an old comrade-in-arms. Deb Fink is a delight as Mabel Cantwell, a preening Southern belle whose every sweet little ol' gesture is a calculated performance. Elizabeth Benedict gives an amusing performance as a matronly Southern busybody who represents the women's vote, if somewhat reminiscent of a Carol Burnett character.

Incidental characters like gaggles of reporters and delegates are more caricatures than necessary, as if Ross is trying to make the play more of a comedy than it is. The principal performances are strong enough to overlook these intrusions, but the material only gives them so much to work with. They get some clever lines, but the thin plot gets waylaid at every turn by windy pontificating about the nature of politics and what one has to do to succeed in it. It's a pacing problem, but a hard one to resolve without cutting the bejeezus out of the stuff that Vidal's really interested in. Plot, characters — that stuff's just window dressing. It's as hauntingly true to politics now as it was then, but it would be more compelling to watch if it were a little more true to life.


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