Sunday, August 5, 2012

'Gore Vidal's The Best Man' Is a Fitting Tribute to Its Playwright

The candidates face off in 'Gore Vidal's The Best Man'

I am writing this review shortly after the lights of Broadway were dimmed in a salute to the late Gore Vidal—author, playwright, and raconteur—who passed away earlier this week at the age of 86. 

As it happens, I had a ticket to see the Broadway revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man the day after he died. The performance, under the able hand of director Michael Wilson, was dedicated to the playwright, and I am pleased to report that this production is a most fitting tribute to the Mr. Vidal’s memory and to his talent.  

Any play that is tied to a specific era will carry with it a bit of stale air, but the current cast, which includes several replacements since the show’s opening four months ago, burnishes every corner of this 1960 political melodrama so that it fairly gleams. 

The Best Man takes place during a presidential nominating convention, at a time when the selection of the party’s candidate was not the foregone conclusion it has become through the well-oiled primary election system. 

Enter the Schoenfeld Theatre, and it is as if you were a delegate to that convention.  As ushers wearing red, white, and blue beribboned straw hats lead you to your seat, you can see that the walls are festooned with bunting, placards, and posters, and there are television monitors suspended from the ceiling showing black-and-white images of the goings-on.

The audience can hear the sounds of speeches and of clapping and cheering that draw us in even before the play begins.  The convention takes place over three days, and at the start of each of the three acts, the sounds grow louder and more excited, helping us to feel the suspense of the battle among the three leading candidates.

The actual 1960 Democratic Convention—in which John Fitzgerald Kennedy emerged as the winner—is the first one that I can recall.  I was a young teenager at the time, and I remember being glued to the television, utterly fascinated with the entire process.  Vidal (who anointed himself a member of the Kennedy clan through a stepfather he had in common with Jacqueline Kennedy) clearly drew some of his plot elements from that convention, and it is the mix of history and an unfortunately prophetic vision of what the system has become in the years since then that continues to keep the play interesting. 

On the one hand, you have characters who bring to mind the charismatic Kennedy and the intellectual Adlai Stevenson, along with specific references to President Eisenhower, to his wife Mamie Eisenhower and even to Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge.   These references, among others, remind us of the place and time the play inhabits.  But there is also a great deal of political gamesmanship, deal brokering, backstabbing, mudslinging, and dirty tricks, all of which will be very familiar even to those who are too young to recall the “good old days.”

The assumption we are handed is that the nomination will go to one of two candidates, the young, dashing, and ambitious Senator Joseph Cantwell (John Stamos) for whom the ends always justify the means, or the former Secretary of State William Russell (John Larroquette), a serious statesman who is a reluctant player in the game of politics. 

Each of the two bears a piece of information about the other that may be enough to break the stalemate.  Cantwell has learned of his opponent’s one-time bout with mental illness, and Russell has information that the Senator may have had a homosexual relationship while serving in the military.  The difference here is that Cantwell relishes his weapon and has already prepared copies of the medical report to distribute to the delegates, while Russell really wants nothing to do with raising potential destructive personal information. 

As the two circle one another, a third major player is on hand—former President Art Hockstader (magnificently portrayed by James Earl Jones), whose endorsement both candidates are seeking. Hockstader, presumably modeled on Harry Truman, is gravely ill, but he will not give up one moment of the spotlight he is enjoying as long as he withholds his endorsement, and his glee is palpable during his meetings with the two frontrunners, even after he can no longer manage to stand up. 

These three gentlemen are fascinating to watch.  John Stamos and John Larroquette embrace their roles nearly as gloriously as Mr. Jones.  But this is not a three-character play;  there are 22 characters, each of whom contributes mightily to keeping things jumping, forestalling any mustiness that might otherwise have crept in. 

Mr. Stamos only recently stepped into the part of Senator Cantwell (replacing Eric McCormack), and he has made it his own by supplying equal parts of boyish charm and Machiavellian underhandedness.  He is joined by three other newcomers:  Kristin Davis, replacing Kerry Butler and making an auspicious Broadway debut, as Cantwell’s ebullient wife; Cybill Shepherd, replacing Candice Bergen as Russell’s estranged wife and reluctant political partner; and Elizabeth Ashley as Sue-Ellen Gamadge, leader of the Women’s Division. 

Ms. Shepherd has quickly found her way into an underwritten part as a politico wife who gradually comes to embrace her public duties, and Ms. Davis and Ms. Ashley (who has the daunting privilege of following Angela Lansbury), absolutely shine in their respective roles.  Ms. Ashley, in particular, seems to have been born to play the role of the honey-toned yet razor-sharp piece of work that is Sue-Ellen Gamadge, who greets Cybill Shepherd’s character (who, after all, may wind up being First Lady) with these charming words:     

You…couldn’t…look…better!  I mean it!  
 I like the whole thing…especially the 
 naturally gray hair.

Even in the smaller roles, you get to see such talented actors as Mark Blum as Russell’s frustrated campaign manager, Dakin Matthews as a backslapping Southern senator, and the always-wonderful Jefferson Mays as the craven supplier of the gossip about Senator Cantwell’s alleged sexual misconduct. 

I’m not going to argue that The Best Man is the find of the century, but there is nothing also-ran about its Tony nomination for Best Revival of a Play (it lost to Death of a Salesman).  Smart directing by Michael Wilson and a top-notch company of actors makes it a sure-fire audience pleaser that I am happy to recommend without reservation.  

If you crave more of ProfMiller, check out the column, ProfMiller@The Theater, at  Recent reviews include "How Deep Is The Ocean?," "Triassic Parq The Musical," and "Closer Than Ever." 

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