Much of the credit belongs to the knockout cast, which includes James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Candace Bergen, Angela Lansbury, Eric McCormack, Michael McKean, Kerry Butler, and Jefferson Mays, each of whom is terrifically good separately -- as well as being part of an extraordinary ensemble.
The famously informed Vidal unfolds his plot in two Philadelphia hotel suites (ingeniously designed by Derek McLane): one where one-time Secretary of State William Russell (Larroquette), a man of great conscience, and one where Senator Joseph Cantwell (McCormack), a man of no conscience whatsoever, are vying for the delegate votes that will put one of them over the top.
Both candidates are seeking the endorsement of ex-President and party leader Arthur "Artie" Hockstader (Jones) as well as Sue-Ellen Gamadge (Lansbury), the sly chairman of the (unnamed) party's women's division, neither of whom have announced their decision.
In addition, the candidate's wives, the weary Alice Russell (Bergen) -- who has long dealt with her husband's philandering -- and the flighty if ambitious Mabel Cantwell (Kerry Butler) also become players, or more accurately pawns, in this political chess game.
Cantwell's win-at-any-cost attitude means he's prepared to circulate ill-obtained medical records containing details of a psychological break-down in Russell's past. The mounting suspense is not just whether Cantwell will disseminate the records, but whether Russell -- at the encouragement of Hockstader and campaign manager Dick Jensen (McKean) -- will lower himself to Cantwell's snake-in-the-gutter level.
It's a question that comes even more blatantly into play when Cantwell's former military mate Sheldon Marcus (Mays), arrives in the nick of time from nearby Delaware with seamy information that could undo his erstwhile associate.
"Well-made" doesn't begin to describe how tightly Vidal constructs his tale, how cleverly he pits his characters against each other in various combinations, and how their arguments and shifting alliances throw crucial ethical choices into high relief. (Much of the play derives from what Vidal observed as a political pundit -- not to mention his being privy to the lowdown as Jacqueline Kennedy's step-brother and Al Gore's cousin.)
Putting aside the sad observation that things have changed so much since 1960 that Bill Russell's strengths may not find their like in the 2012 presidential race, Larroquette deserves special praise for his authoritative performance, and he's well-matched by McCormack as the opportunistic Cantwell.
As a former President wielding power all the while his body is weakening, Jones is the major scene-stealer -- knowing, for instance, the wily way to make applause-getting exits. The same goes for Lansbury, whose speeches (delivered in a strong southern accent) about what the women of America want in their President are both funny and frightening.