Presidential election years tend to bring about a resurgence of political dramas in New York, thankfully so in the case of Gore Vidal’s gripping play, The Best Man, which debuted at the Morosco Theatre in 1960 and feels (in its treatment of ethics, if not in its contemporaneity) as vital and gripping as it must have fifty-plus years ago as it’s being presented now in a revival now playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
The play, which focuses on two rival candidates’ bids for their party’s nomination, is a showcase for meaty, substantive acting and should delight those of us who go to the theatre hoping, at least occasionally, to be roused, or even provoked, or, as is sometimes the case in The Best Man, to put ourselves in the shoes of those in the midst of career- and life-defining decisions.
On the opposing sides of the political ring are former Secretary of State William Russell, an intellectual (“egghead”) with a penchant for womanizing that is nonetheless underpinned by an undercurrent of substance and conscientiousness, and Joseph Cantwell, a Senator whose mudslinging and dog-eat-dog attitude threatens to plunge the race into moral turpitude.
As the two gather at the convention in Philadelphia on the eve of their party’s nomination, they (and their wives) find themselves consulting with fictional former President Artie Hockstader (James Earl Jones, tacitly defying race stereotypes) and the party’s vice-chair Sue Gamadge (Angela Lansbury), despite the fact that what really matters is the scandal that’s beginning to simmer just below the surface. You see, though Mr. Russell is perfectly healthy now, he was hospitalized for a mental breakdown several years back, and Mr. Cantwell, due to some shady machinations, is possessing of the damning psychological paperwork.
It’s a situation that’s wholly plausible even today, when candidates’ (and celebrities’) personal lives, particularly their troubles with drink, drugs, philandering, or mental illness, make up much of the drama that’s aired on the media. What Cantwell doesn’t know whilst he’s planning his attack, however, is that Russell has a bit of dirt of his own on his conniving rival, thanks to his campaign manager, Dick Jensen (Michael McKean, dryly winning), and a mysterious figure from Cantwell’s military past, Sheldon Marcus (a delightfully jittery Jefferson Mays).
Despite the urgings of the former President, Russell has always thought of himself as able to remain above the knee-jerk animal instincts to which Cantwell ascribes and which meeting the Senator on his basement level would represent. It’s Russell’s moral dilemma over whether or not to air Cantwell’s dirty laundry that propels The Best Man throughout three acts that whiz by without nary a watch-check thanks to a pitch-perfect cast and Michael Wilson’s savvy direction.
Embodying Russell is John Larroquette, who here bests his performance last season in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying by embodying the voice of reason without descending into empty sentimentality. As rival Cantwell, Eric McCormack (of TV’s Will and Grace) is as every bit as smarmy as he should be, content to talk over his opponents and flash his weaselly smile, emphasizing style over substance and cunning over conscience.
In supporting roles, Candice Bergen gives a magnificently understated turn as Russell’s estranged wife Alice (her deadpan delivery throughout is memorable for the comic glee it inspires as a result of Bergen’s seeming lack of enthusiasm), and Kerry Butler winningly straddles (just barely) the line between caricature and expert comedienne as Cantwell’s exuberant Southern belle of a wife, Mabel. James Earl Jones is a hoot as the ex-President, and Angela Lansbury chews (or rather, owns) the scenery as only a grand dame could in the minor role of Gamadge, turning, as she does, a glance or a gesture into an expertly timed laugh.
With precision, Derek McLane’s dynamic set shifts between hotel suites at the convention as meetings are held and deals are attempted. Contained within a tight timeframe (the play’s events take place over the course of three tense days) and featuring spectacularly compelling political stakes, most theatergoers should find much to like about The Best Man, which, despite its familiar subject matter, is nevertheless thrillingly unpredictable.
Given a rousing production like this one, The Best Man may just be the best political play on offer this Broadway season, and may continue to carry this title through to November, though there are still seven months until the big day, enough time (as these candidates would know) to be given a run for its money. As those who’ve ever held office can attest, it’s best to savor delights like this play’s while they last, for their kind are all too infrequent and, when they do come, fleeting.