Given the state of American politics, I wonder if a revival of Gore Vidal’s play "The Best Man"–or as it has been rechristened, "Gore Vidal’s The Best Man"–could be anything but timely, no matter when it was produced, but perhaps now more than ever, as media savvy generations watch the current Presidential race with various degrees of horror and bemusement.
Because the themes of dirty vs. clean politicking are so present in real-life today, the 1960 play comes with the built-in kick of instant audience identification–plus the requisite laughs of recognition, and partisan applause when moral scruples, however briefly or diluted, win over backstabbing, muckraking, shady deals and moral turpitude. And of course, Mr. Vidal being justifiably known as the bard of American politics, there is a good deal of wit in the banter and the backroom–well, actually, hotel room–negotiation. The play is, after all, about the selection of a presidential candidate at a convention in Philadelphia for an unspecified, incumbent party.
When this play was revived ten years ago (by the same producer), it seemed a bit quainter than it does to me now. In part this is because I think overall, the cast is firing at a higher octane.
Which doesn’t hurt, because the characters are painted with broad brush-strokes: Our hero and candidate of choice, Secretary Bill Russell (John Laroquette), not a perfect man by any means, but certainly a good one; his unscrupulous opponent Senator Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack); and the sly, southern ex-President (James Earl Jones) who makes it clear he means to endorse not the better person, but the better leader. On the distaff side there’s Russell’s sophisticated middle-aged wife Alice (Candace Bergen), loyal and devoted even though her husband’s passion for her has died; Cantwell’s self-absorbed Southern belle trophy-wife (Kerry Butler); and a powerful female columnist who plays both sides like fiddles (Angela Lansbury). And on the plain old staff side, there are two beleaguered campaign managers (Michael McKean for "our" guy, Corey Brill for the forces of darkness). And Jefferson Mays plays a sad sack who, ironically, may hold a flame to the fuse of a powder keg’s worth of scandal.
I think another factor making this revival pop more than the last (which was perfectly competent and fun, just not at this level) is the work of director Michael Wilson—he has such an affinity for the world, style and era of the play (including a terrific set, which conjures 60s news coverage TV technology by, Derek McLane) that he seems almost to have extricated the production from a time capsule. He has his cast of notables perform in a very traditional Broadway style, one that is grand of gesture and conspicuous of theatrical turn. I don’t mean to confuse this with over-acting, which would be quite another matter–merely to say that this is not realism of any sort, slice-of-life, lyric or other. We are clearly being told a ripping yarn, its actors are the tellers of the tale, and they tell it with an engaging extravagance. Well, most of them do. Laroquette and Bergen represent the reasoned center in the midst of a crazed whirlpool, and because they are masters of light comedy, they manage, each, to make a charismatic tour de force out of maintaining control; out of being the ones who, in their way, see and speak on behalf of the audience point of view. Which is theoretically the moral center as well.
One must pause also to praise James Earl Jones. After several performances, over the years, that made one fear his gifts of memory and technique were giving way, slowly, to age, he is back at the top of his game here, playing the former president whose endorsement is the high prize, with a robustness that goes beyond brio. It says something for Mr. Wilson’s direction too that though the play is pointedly kept in its alternate-but-accurate-universe 1960s setting, you don’t even question his ethnicity. It doesn’t come off like “non-traditional casting,” even though, obviously, that’s exactly what it is, to the point of potentially violating verisimilitude. He walks onstage with the bearing and gravitas of an ex-President of the 1960s and by God, you just accept it. He doesn’t give you much choice. Rather like his character, his is a performance that doesn’t even entertain no for an answer. Because all you see is passion and patriotism.
He makes you nostalgic for America just a little bit…
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