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NEW YORK – It may not have the satirical sting it no doubt carried back in 1960, but Gore Vidal’s The Best Man still has plenty of bite even in our more jaded age, when chronic moral affront has so polluted the national political landscape that it’s seemingly beyond clean-up. An ideally timed antidote to a mercurial presidential primary race running low on levity, Michael Wilson’s Broadway revival is shrewdly cast, with a starry ensemble that lands every laugh while bringing sly shadings to their characters.
There was much talk among a group sitting near me on press night of the actors’ various claims to fame, ignoring their considerable stage chops. Overhearing (OK, I was eavesdropping) mentions of Jessica Fletcher, Murphy Brown, Will Truman, Darth Vader, Lenny from Laverne & Shirley and the guy from Night Court – discussed like old acquaintances – suggests nothing if not the grip of popular culture on the public imagination. The familiar names will be the draw, but Vidal’s epigram-loaded dialogue is the payoff.
Coming from a political family and having at times entered the fray himself, Vidal is an astute observer of that world. Structurally, the three-act play occasionally trots when it should gallop, and its succession of confrontations is perhaps a little too meticulously mapped out. But it’s remarkable that this 52-year-old work’s analysis of certain ingrained mechanisms, as well as certain stock characters from both sides of the aisle, remains so sharp.
The play is set in a Philadelphia hotel during the 1960 presidential nominating convention of an unnamed party. It focuses on the horse race between frontrunner William Russell (John Larroquette, a Tony winner last season for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), a fastidiously scrupulous old-money intellectual and former Secretary of State, and his chief rival Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack). The nakedly ambitious young Senator is Russell’s polar opposite, a self-made opportunist from humble origins, permanently on the defensive.
While Vidal’s chief inspirations for these composite characters were Adlai Stevenson and Richard Nixon, respectively, there are glimmers of any number of contemporary figures in both men. Larroquette’s Russell has the patrician air of John Kerry, the philandering reputation of Bill Clinton and even a touch of Barack Obama’s brainy remoteness, which he’s constantly reminded is a political liability, along with his erudite humor. McCormack’s Cantwell is a folksy populist in the Sarah Palin mold and an ostentatiously religious attack dog à la Rick Santorum. He also has John Edwards’ hair.
Truman-esque former President Artie Hockstader (James Earl Jones) fuels suspense by being cagey about who will benefit from his influential endorsement. Given that the play is so period-specific, the color-blind casting is a little jarring, but Jones is so darn terrific as the plain-spoken, farm-raised elder statesman that any reservation is instantly erased.
The juiciest conflict concerns a smear campaign prepared by the more conservative Cantwell’s team, exposing medical records that outline liberal-leaning Russell’s stress-related breakdown and possible manic-depressive tendencies. There’s also the fact that his marriage to Alice (Candice Bergen) has long been a sham maintained purely for political purposes. When Russell’s resourceful campaign manager Dick Jensen (Michael McKean) plans a counter-offensive using knowledge gleaned from Cantwell’s old army colleague (Jefferson Mays), William struggles against his natural revulsion at the idea of getting down in the mud.
While the ailing Hockstader has been staring down the dark tunnel of mortality, the smell of the fight is a tonic to him. It’s pure joy watching Jones spring invigoratingly back to life, rubbing his hands with glee at the blood-sport while booming with an authority that makes it clear he still has a vested interest in the future of the country – albeit that of a wily pragmatist.
Jones is not the only octogenarian to steal the show. In two hilarious scenes, Angela Lansbury injects a jolt of color and incisive character detail into Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, chair of the party’s Women’s Division. Somehow simultaneously gracious and bluntly candid in her opinionated assessments, she shares priceless insights into what the women of America like and don’t like in both a President and a First Lady.
There’s plenty to savor in other performances, too. As the staunch center of what’s essentially a morality tale, Larroquette radiates solidity, intelligence and the supercilious arched eyebrows of an ethical man both amused and appalled by the circus.
Bergen has limited stage experience, but she makes her slightly stiff manner work for a woman who is uncomfortable in the public eye. Numb to the coldness of her marriage and yet still quietly craving her husband’s love, or at least respect, Alice gradually comes into her own as a character. It’s easy to see what brought these two together and what will keep them together despite their emotional distance. There’s something quite touching about Alice’s acute observation and growing approval of William’s every move, and Bergen conveys this without a hint of sentiment.
In a play that compares the public and private faces of politicians, McCormack’s manipulative Joe is a canny creation, growing snakier by the minute. (Vidal doesn’t exactly tread gently about where his sympathies lie.) Where the actor is especially good is in showing how this underhand character can still believe in himself as a man uniquely qualified to represent the people. He has drunk his own Kool-Aid. Joe is perfectly paired with Kerry Butler’s Mabel, a cartoonish vulgarian, every bit as hungry as her husband.
Having such seasoned pros as McKean and Mays in secondary roles adds immeasurably to their effectiveness, and Dakin Matthews is a wicked hoot as a cornpone old Senator relishing his little slice of power.
Derek McLane’s design shifts smoothly between fusty hotel suites but makes somewhat awkward transitions to other convention spaces. However, he enhances the sense of closed-door action at a public event by decking out the theater with campaign posters and stars-and-stripes bunting, placing vintage-style b&w monitors around the house to simulate period television coverage. Ann Roth’s costumes are precision-tailored to define the characters.
If the play is no ageless classic, in this tangy revival it’s a vivid snapshot of American political life a half-century ago that shows both how much and how little has changed.
Venue: Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York (runs through July 22)
Cast: James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack, Kerry Butler, Jefferson Mays, Michael McKean, Angela Lansbury, Curtis Billings, Corey Brill, Tony Carlin, Donna Hanover, Sherman Howard, Olja Hrustic, Bill Kux, James Lecesne, Dakin Matthews, Angelica Page, Fred Parker, Amy Tribbey
Playwright: Gore Vidal
Director: Michael Wilson
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Music/sound designer: John Gromada
Projection designer: Peter Nigrini
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Infinity Stages, Universal Pictures Stage Productions, Barbara Manocherian/Michael Palitz, Broadway Consortium/Ken Mahoney, Kathleen K. Johnson, Andy Sandberg, Fifty Church Street Productions, Larry Hirschhorn/Bennu Productions, Patty Baker, Paul Boskind and Martian Entertainment, Wendy Federman, Mark S. Golub & David S. Golub, Cricket Hooper Jiranek, Stewart F. Lane & Bonnie Comley, Carl Moellenberg, Harold Thau, Will Trice
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