Yards and yards of patriotic bunting stun the senses as you enter the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, where a revival of “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man” opened on Sunday night. Television monitors displaying black-and-white footage hang from boxes that frame the stage, and the usher handing you your program wears a festive boater with red, white and blue trim. The aim is to give the audience a sense of being present at a presidential nominating convention in Philadelphia in 1960, where the play is set.
I suspect the producers could have spared themselves the expense of all this you-are-there paraphernalia. By the time the curtain came down on this starry but sluggish production, and a nominee had been formally announced, I did feel as if I’d endured a particularly fractious and constipated evening at a political convention. Need I add that acquiring this experience has never been one of my great ambitions?
Mr. Vidal’s drama about backroom deal making and the withering of America’s political discourse first opened on Broadway in 1960, back when party conventions in election years were still suspenseful battles for delegates and not ceremonial coronations of preselected candidates. There has been talk that this year’s campaign for the Republican nomination might go down to the wire, old-school style, which adds a small fillip of fresh topicality to this production, directed by Michael Wilson and featuring a glittering dais of stars, including James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, John Larroquette and Eric McCormack. (The previous Broadway revival also opened during an election year, in 2000.)
Unfortunately a thin veneer of currency isn’t sufficient to revitalize a drama that feels positively quaint, despite Mr. Vidal’s winking cynicism about the political arena and his undeniable prescience about future trends in American politicking. He was certainly on target in noting the corrupting influence of television cameras on the tone of political campaigns and the rise of pandering populism as a crucial element in the playbook of any politician hoping to make headway in a presidential contest.
But anyone following politics with even the slightest peripheral vision is acutely aware of how radically the landscape has changed. The toxins Mr. Vidal was identifying in 1960 as hovering threats on the democratic horizon are now confirmed facts of political life, so that this once-trenchant drama — concerning a battle for the nomination between a high-minded, deeply moral candidate and his canny, cutthroat rival — feels like a civics lesson drawn from a long out-of-date textbook.
Mr. Larroquette (a Tony winner last year for “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”) and Mr. McCormack (television’s “Will & Grace”) play the contrasting characters dueling for the top prize of the carefully unnamed political party. William Russell (Mr. Larroquette) is the patrician candidate who exemplifies the ideals Mr. Vidal clearly favors in a man and a president: intelligence, probity, a Harvard degree and a healthy distaste for the grim business of currying the favor of voters by coddling their baser instincts. (His campaign manager, expertly played by Michael McKean, has to restrain him from dropping too many erudite references to the likes of Bertrand Russell and Oliver Cromwell at his news conferences.) He’s no saint, however: long estranged from his wife, Alice (Candice Bergen), Russell has a reputation for philandering, a detail that must have seemed daring in 1960 but inspires a yawn in the post-Clinton, post-Edwards era.
Joseph Cantwell (Mr. McCormack) is the ambitious senator who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, attended a state school and has no qualms about using any and all means available to gain an upper hand over his more well-connected rival. This means smearing Russell by revealing his past history of psychological frailty.
Cantwell is clearly meant to represent the degenerative tendencies in American politics of Mr. Vidal’s era (which have only metastasized our own), but I have to admit that from a theatrical standpoint the cool savagery embodied by Mr. McCormack’s Cantwell, all camera-ready smiles and animal energy, proves to be far more appealing than the tormented nobility of Mr. Larroquette’s Russell.
Mr. Larroquette gives a restrained performance, doling out Russell’s wise musings — on the anathema of personality politics, on the importance of leading men as opposed to following polls, on the relentless artifice involved in campaigning — with a studied air of pained, weary wisdom. But the character comes across as alternately a dispenser of high-toned, dryly ironic jokes or a lecturer on ethics. Mr. McCormack’s slippery Cantwell may be repellent in his ruthlessness, but at least he’s not a snore.
Ms. Bergen, making a rare stage appearance, looks a trifle stiff as the long-suffering wife, but she hits her comic marks with crisp efficiency, delivering Alice’s sardonic asides with the same brittle edge she brought to her performance on TV’s “Murphy Brown.” The slight air of discomfort Ms. Bergen radiates certainly suits the character, who shares her husband’s innate distaste for the indecorous business of glad-handing.
As Cantwell’s upstart Southern belle wife Mabel, Kerry Butler looks luscious in Ann Roth’s well-turned costumes, but she pushes her character’s kittenish sexuality and crass cattiness a little too close to caricature. Jefferson Mays makes an effectively sweaty impression as a squirrelly former Army mate of Cantwell’s who is corralled by Russell’s campaign manager into revealing a secret in the senator’s past he hopes to use to neutralize Cantwell’s plan to go public with Russell’s medical history.
But the audience warms most to the veterans onstage. Ms. Lansbury, a welcome presence in many a recent Broadway season, makes every moment of her stage time count as Sue-Ellen Gamadge, a chatty and genial but steely party operative given to dictating to candidates and their wives what the female voter does and does not appreciate. The role is small, but Ms. Lansbury embodies her character with such style that she is as vivid a presence as any when she’s onstage, and manages to nail a sure laugh merely by lowering a newspaper.
The great Mr. Jones is provocatively (if not preposterously) cast as Arthur Hockstader, a former president from the South whose endorsement both candidates hope to win. It is obviously a trifle absurd to suggest that an African-American would have achieved the presidency before the civil rights movement had even gained steam. And since no one else onstage is black, I’m not sure Mr. Jones’s presence can be classified as color-blind casting.
But no matter: this consummate actor digs into his role with a relish you can surely sense from the back row of the balcony. He all but swamps the stage with Hockstader’s hearty bonhomie and zest for the machinations of backroom deal making, but also succeeds in inflecting his character — in the last rounds of a losing battle with cancer — with a moving sense of his mortality.
He also earns robust laughs with some of Mr. Vidal’s piercingly funny lines collapsing the distance between the politics of mid-20th-century America and today. “The world’s changed since I was politickin’,” he observes in a conversation about religion with Russell, after Russell confesses he isn’t a believer. “In those days you had to pour God over everything, like ketchup.” (Apparently the world’s changed back, Arthur.)
But the play more often strikes postures that feel antiquated even in their idealism, as when Russell responds to a question about the importance of polling with a tidy little lecture about the role of government in a properly functioning democracy.
“I don’t believe in polls,” he says. “Accurate or not. And if I may bore you with one of my little sermons: Life is not a popularity contest; neither is politics. The important thing for any government is educating the people about the issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion.”
Gore Vidal’s The Best Man
By Gore Vidal; directed by Michael Wilson; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Ann Roth; lighting by Kenneth Posner; music and sound by John Gromada; projections by Peter Nigrini; hair design by Josh Marquette; technical supervision by Hudson Theatrical Productions; production stage manager, Matthew Farrell; company manager, Brig Berney; general manager, Richards/Climan, Inc.; associate producer, Stephanie Rosenberg. Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Infinity Stages, Universal Pictures Stage Productions, Barbara Manocherian/Michael Palitz, Kathleen K. Johnson, Andy Sandberg, Ken Mahoney/The Broadway Consortium, Fifty Church Street Productions, Larry Hirschhorn/Bennu Productions, Patty Baker, Paul Boskind and Martian Entertainment, Wendy Federman, Mark S. Golub and David S. Golub, Cricket Hooper Jiranek, Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley, Carl Moellenberg, Harold Thau and Will Trice. At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, 236 West 45th Street, Manhattan, (212) 239-6200, telecharge.com. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
WITH: James Earl Jones (Former President Arthur Hockstader), John Larroquette (Secretary William Russell), Candice Bergen (Alice Russell), Eric McCormack (Senator Joseph Cantwell), Kerry Butler (Mabel Cantwell), Jefferson Mays (Sheldon Marcus), Michael McKean (Dick Jensen) and Angela Lansbury (Sue-Ellen Gamadge).
Source New York Times