Review - The Best Man: Change We Can Believe In
Two days after the death of its author, I had the pleasure of taking in director Michael Wilson's outstanding revival of The Best Man - one of the best evenings Broadway had to offer last season - for the third time. Gore Vidal most certainly went out with a landslide victory.His 1960 comedy/drama permits us a peek at the seedier side of presidential politics before giving us some hope that decency may stand a chance. Set during the convention of an unnamed major American party, the tense and juicy story is embedded in a time when delegates gathered into town, not to perfunctorily declare a pre-determined winner, but to debate through multiple votes, late night deals and maybe a few protest rallies to come up with a nominee. But every so often a timeless thought flies out of the elegant and insightfully witty text that, if you didn't know better, you'd swear must have been added to give the play a contemporary jolt.
While many of the major players have been recently recast, the rich center of the production remains the interplay between John Larroquette and James Earl Jones; both of them giving knockout performances at the beginning of the production's run, now even more striking in subtlety and subtext.
A stately and sardonic Larroquette portrays William Russell, a liberal candidate and former Secretary of State who heads into the convention leading the race over conservative adversary Senator Joseph Cantwell. Russell could win on the first ballot unless the ex-president he served under, Arthur Hockstader decides to throw his support in Cantwell's direction. And while an unseen third candidate stands little chance of victory, his delegates, if released, could also become a deciding factor.
As Hockstader, a robust and commanding Jones makes it clear that, despite quickly deteriorating health, he's thoroughly enjoying what is mostly likely his last moment in the public spotlight, savoring the backroom dealings of presidential politics and the power he wields. The scene where the two of them meet to discuss the conscientious intellectual's shortcomings as a candidate contains some of the best acting you're apt to see on Broadway these days.Both Russell and Cantwell have skeletons in the closet; issues that would be more acceptable to many Americans today, but would certainly keep a candidate out office fifty years ago. When one candidate threatens to release evidence against his opponent, the other must consider if he should counter with newly discovered knowledge about a long-ago event - a real doozy for 1960 - that could sink the man's entire career.
John Stamos replaces Eric McCormack as the sharply groomed Cantwell, whose strength as a leader lies in his capability to hold off definite opinions until the polls determine what the public wants. His performance plays up the lusty moments between the senator and his wife (a sexy and manipulative Kristin Davis) but there's a bit too much "playing the bad guy" in his sneers and leers.
While Candice Bergen played Russell's wife as a shy and socially awkward woman trying her best to be the supportive wife despite difficulties in her marriage, CyBill Shepard, as is more typical for her, is cool and cautious; confident in her role as the candidate's wife. It's a different, but equally effective approach. Also a lateral move is the switch from the chirpy elegance of Angela Lansbury's performance as the party's grand dame of influence to the more businesslike drawls of Elizabeth Ashley, repeating her performance from the 2000 Broadway revival.
Also returning from the previous revival is Mark Blum, who replaced Michael McKeon when his leg was broken in a traffic accident a few months ago. As Russell's campaign manager he does a fine job showing the character's professionalism in keeping his nerves in check while surrounded by attention-grabbing politicos.
Solid support is delivered by Jefferson Mays, continuing in his role as a nervous citizen whose word could affect the entire election and Dakin Matthews, whose one significant scene as a hard-drinking, good old boy senator, has grown into a real highlight.
The Best Man remains one of the best nights on Broadway and with presidential conventions coming up, its satire is both funnier and scarier.
Once upon a summer of '83, a young aspiring actor named Woody Harrelson became close pals with a Harlem-raised fellow named Frankie Hyman while they both worked a construction job in Houston. Eventually, they went their separate ways; one becoming famous for doing something other than playwriting and the other pursuing a career in writing, although these many years later he apparently hasn't written anything he would care to mention in a Playbill bio.But when reunited, they decided to put their experiences into play; a comedy with characters based on themselves and all the colorful people they encountered that summer on the job. As Harrelson has mentioned to the media on more than one occasion, they had characters and they had their dynamics and relationships, but they just didn't have a plot.
After last night's opening, I'd advise them to keep looking for one.
Oh sure, there's a first act curtain line in Bullet For Adolf that hints that the two-and-a-half-hour muddy mess of an evening is going to indulge in a narrative, but clearly it must take a back seat to the numerous gags and detours into subjects like the cause of pedophilia, the consumption of human placenta, white guys acting like black guys, gay guys acting like straight guys and even a quick dig at Judy Garland. ("Unless that chick is skipping down a yellow brick road, I don't want to hear from her.")
Fortunately for our two aspiring scribes, there was a theatre Production Company named Children at Play, owned by a fellow named Woody Harrelson, which seemed happy to give their shoddy work in progress a go at a prime Off-Broadway house, and give the show a big publicity boost by hiring a well-known celebrity to direct; a guy named Woody Harrelson.Filling in for Woody Harrelson, at least on stage, is Brandon Coffey as the easy-going slacker, Zach, who invites the new guy at his construction gig, Frankie (Tyler Jacob Rollinson), to share his apartment along with his current roommate, Clint (David Coomber), a handsome lad with well-defined muscle tone and the vocal and physical mannerisms of 1983 sitcom heterosexual Jm J. Bullock. When Clint is eventually seen making out with Zach's ex-girlfriend, Batina (Shannon Garland), it's suggested that he may be doing it to experience a sexual connection with his roomie.
Lee Orsorio plays a white guy nicknamed Dago-Czech (a tribute to his lineage) who prefers acting like a stereotypical black guy from the streets. Dago-Czech is so hung up on his appearance that he even wears a suit while digging a ditch. Eventually joining the mix are "angry black woman " Jackie (Shamika Cotton) and "crazy black chick" Shareeta (Marsha Stephanie Blake).
Somehow, this crew consists of the entire guest list for Batina's 18th birthday party, hosted by her Nazi-sympathizing German father (The fine stage actor Nick Wyman keeps the character from being a total cartoon.) whose pride and joy is a Lugar pistol said to be used in an assassination attempt against Hitler. And yes, the gun is fired before the final blackout.
Bullet For Adolf certainly tries hard to be edgy and offensive, in a hip, casual way, but there are only so many times you can listen to tepid vulgarities such as, "Does your ass ever get jealous of all the shit that comes out of your mouth?"
Though the play has no strong connection to nostalgia for the early 80s, Imaginary Media provides clever and entertaining video montages of news events and pop culture of the day between the numerous scenes. Particularly enjoyable was the one clip showing a pretty and prim young woman in a Boston watering hole asking a loveable elderly bartender if they can use a new waitress.