James Earl Jones, left, and John Larroquette in 'The Best Man' (Photo by Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK – The late Gore Vidal’s political melodrama "The Best Man" arrived on Broadway just as the 2012 presidential election was heating up; its timing could not have been more expedient. Surprisingly, this revival of Mr. Vidal’s 1960 play turns out to be not only oddly relevant, but also crackling good entertainment, an old-time theatrical perennial in three acts.
Michael Wilson, who helmed the Hartford Stage for 13 years, has directed the proceedings with a smooth hand, attending to every detail. He also filled the stage of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater on West 45th Street with an array of stage and television stars, all of whom nimbly deliver Mr. Vidal’s satiric tale as if it were today’s breaking news. This "Best Man" proves that from Shakespeare’s historical plays to contemporary political potboilers, the usurping of power, whether it be a throne or the White House, has always been good fodder for high drama.
Mr. Vidal, who died on July 31 at age 86, was mainly known as a renaissance man of letters; his novels, essays and memoirs could fill several bookshelves. He also penned the 1964 film version of "The Best Man" that starred Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. Yet, over the years he had written only a handful of plays, "The Best Man" the most successful of them; the original production ran for 520 performances on Broadway.
Mr. Vidal set "The Best Man" at an unnamed political party’s – you choose Democrat or Republican – presidential convention during the summer of 1960 in Philadelphia, where a politico and Secretary of State William Russell, played by the excellent John Larroquette, is rallying against a slick Eric McCormick, as the young, narcissistic whippersnapper, Senator Joseph Cantwell, for the party’s nomination. They are also courting the endorsement of ex-President Arthur Hockstader, played by James Earl Jones, who once again turns in a magnificent larger-than-life performance, this time as the dying ex-President.
During the course of the play, we find out that both would-be nominees aren’t what they appear to be. Mr. Russell cares deeply about the nation, but his personal life is in tatters, with his wife Alice, in a nice performance by Candice Bergen, who is on the verge of divorcing him; though in public, they act as if they were happily married. Meanwhile, Senator Cantwell, self-made and self-centered, only cares about his personal aspirations; his young wife Mabel (Kerry Butler) and the consensus of the country come secondarily.
When circumstances alter, we see that both men are first and foremost blood-sport political animals and are not above doing anything to win the nomination, including a little blackmail. Senator Cantwell wants to go public with the fact that Mr. Russell once suffered a mental breakdown, while Mr. Russell threatens to expose an old Army sexual indiscretion of Mr. Cantwell’s.
By setting his play in a political milieu, Mr. Vidal was on familiar ground. He seemed to have been a political pundit since the term was coined and a Washington insider from birth. Mr. Vidal’s father Eugene was an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his maternal grandfather Thomas Payor Gore was the first senator from Oklahoma. His mother Nina was the second wife of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s future stepfather Hugh D. Auchincloss. Mr. Vidal got a first-hand taste of the political fray when he made two unsuccessful bids for political office: the first was a run for Congress in New York State in 1960; the second was a try for the governorship of California in 1982.
All of this helps enliven the proceedings and lends authenticity to Mr. Vidal's play. "The Best Man" may not be a great play, but it is engrossing theater that delivers the goods.
The entire cast is estimable, but there are three cameos that deserve mention: the great Angela Lansbury is a masterly delight as the slightly dotty Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, chairman of the party’s woman’s division; Dakin Matthews plays the older Senator Clyde Carlin so realistically that it seems as though he has just walked off the Senate floor; and Jefferson Mays is properly iniquitous as Sheldon Marcus,who was in the Army with Senator Cantwell and who informs on the senator.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.