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A CurtainUp Review
Gore Vidal’s The Best Man
Despite the pretentious moniker having been affixed with the playwright’s name for its first Broadway revival in 2000, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man happily remains in this latest revival to be as timely, topical, and exhilarating as when it first appeared on Broadway fifty-two years ago. It is true that what was proclaimed as politically provocative in its time and subsequently a little old hat now seems to have developed a spine that not only resists condescension, but rather smugly validates itself more than ever in the light of the current political scene. While the plot that pits an ethical and erudite senator William Russell against a no-holds-barred down-and-dirty Senator Joseph Cantwell can hardly be called inventive, it barrels along entertainingly thanks to the invigorating battle of tongues and tempers that fuel this excellent production.
Smartly cast with a winning company, under the crackling direction of Michael Wilson, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man relies on occasional winks at top political figures of the time (the play is set in 1960), namely Adlai Stevenson and Richard Nixon. But it also relies for its success on how we are able to perceive and balance the quaintness of the viciousness that existed at a time when domestic issues and foreign policies still took precedence --- all this in the glaring light of today, with its even more venomously modernized political and personal assaults on character, race, and religion.
As we are in the midst of another campaign for the presidency, the current revival may be seen as an engaging look at politics in the good old days, that is before everything at a convention was a done deal. The play is set both on the floor of the Philadelphia Convention Hall as well as in a pair of hotel suites (handsomely designed to glide smoothly into place by Derek McLane) during the time of the tumultuous nominating process.
The current cast is an example of well-done deals, as all the actors seem supremely committed to making the most of their roles. The fireworks begin with the entrance of the commendably in command James Earl Jones as the slick and cunning former President Arthur Hockstader. Few will need to be reminded that the Tony Award-winning (The Great White Hope, Fences) Jones has been an imposing theatrical figure for the past forty-five years. His formidable robustness is a wonderful thing to behold in his amusingly bombastic portrayal of the manipulating Hockstader, who though dying and in pain from cancer, significantly enlivens the stakes between the two voraciously battling campaigning front runners.
When it comes to being imposing as well as impressive, John Larroquette fills the bill splendidly as Secretary of State William Russell, whose idealism, principals, and disdain for unprincipled ambition prove to be the guiding proponents of the play. To be sure, his is a one-sided and decidedly polarizing polemic. However, Vidal makes sure that it’s the meanies (as they do in real life) craftily keep everyone on their toes.
What could be more amusing in this election year than oodles of snappy and insinuating dialogue that earnestly and humorously recalls a time when the delegates at a convention could actually surprise us with their votes? The play is ripe with character assassinations and disclosures, mostly to do with matters sexual, and a plethora of flip political quips. Here, the likeable, liberal, idealistic, and married William Russell is facing not only exposure of his years as an estranged-from-his-wife philanderer, but also the rumor of being mentally unstable. As Russell, Larroquette (Tony and Drama Desk awards for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) stands tall displaying his dramatic capabilities in the face of some stiff competition.
Russell's bete noir is the unscrupulous Joseph Cantwell (Erik McCormack), whose treacherously gung-ho attack of his opponent is contrasted against his baby-talk embroidered relationship with his wife (She calls him “Papa Bear” and he calls her “Mama Bear”). McCormack, who is probably best known for his role as Will Truman on NBC’s long-running TV series Will and Grace, is basically rotten to the core. One glance at McCormack’s calculated smiles, good looks, and that spiffy haircut, and you can see him not only as a truly dangerous adversary, but also as a startling reminder (in looks only) of Senator John Edwards. The adversarial plot thickens when Cantwell's damaging information against Russell backfires with a potential revelation about his own past.
Standing and maneuvering smartly behind their husbands are the wives, each in her way passionately dedicated to her respective husband. Candice Bergen, who had a ten-year success in the CBS TV comedy series Murphy Brown, is gorgeous and grand as Russell's neglected wife Alice, a model of good-breeding and refinement, even as she valiantly conceals to her husband and to the world her true feelings about her sex-less marriage. Kerry Butler is a hoot as Cantwell's sassy and politically perceptive wife Mabel who unequivocally demonstrates with every innuendo what a driving and significant force the equally ambitious woman behind her man can be.
It isn’t enough or responsible to say that Angela Lansbury is simply funny as Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, the sarcastically inclined, frou-frou-frocked leader of a women's caucus. She is so much more than that —– simply call this treasure of the theater a perennial vote-getter.
The extraordinary Jefferson Mays is scary and nutty as the mentally unbalanced informer who fingers Cantwell. Michael McKean makes a vivid impression as Dick Jenson, Russell's campaign manager. Ann Roth’s costumes give the women plenty of style, just as Vidal gives the men they stand behind plenty of guile.
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