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.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Cybill Shepherd, John Larroquette; Bottom: Kristin Davis and John Stamos.
Posted on August 08, 2012 - by
About the Author: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.