Presidential candidates have a certain aura about them. In person, they can appear larger than life. The revival of Gore Vidal’s 1960 political drama, The Best Man, provides the necessary star power to capture the confidence, seductiveness and allure of two contenders battling it out for the presidential nomination of their party. The cast is one of the most star-studded to hit the Broadway stage in recent memory. They include James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Candice Bergen, John Larroquette, and Eric McCormack. Without such entertainment luminaries, the production would lack the needed brilliance that radiates around such contests.
The Best Man is old-school political melodrama on par with such early 1960’s classics as Advise and Consent and Seven Days in May. The plot centers around a 1960 Party Convention (we never know Democratic or Republican) being held in Philadelphia. The interior of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre is even decked out like a convention hall with party banners and embellishments. The two main candidates are a former Secretary of State, William Russell, played by John Larroquette; and a United States Senator, Joseph Cantwell, played by Eric McCormack. Adding to the drama is a former President, in his last hurrah, looking to sway the nomination outcome, sparring wives, and a host of party hacks and committee persons seeking to peddle their potential influence.
Russell is characterized as a principled East Coast intellectual who runs a clean campaign based on the issues. Cantwell, portraying himself as a more populist, man of the people, will stop at nothing—dirty tricks, smear tactics—in order to secure the nomination. John Larroquette is perfectly cast as Russell. He has a certain snobbishness mixed with a righteous political air. He is noble, while flawed with a possible history of infidelity and mental health issues that handicaps his presidential ambitions. Eric McCormack, better known for his comedic role in the long-running TV series, Will and Grace, oozes insincerity. He is slickly smooth as the arrogant, self-confident, anything goes, Senator Cantwell. James Earl Jones is feisty, yet strong-willed as former President, Artie Hockstader. Hockstader knows this is his last chance in the limelight and he takes every opportunity to hold onto it. Angela Lansbury, still going strong after so many decades on stage, comes across as somewhat flighty as Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, the Chairwoman of the Party’s Women’s Division. But make no mistake. There is an undercurrent of steeliness and experience that belies her outward appearance and utterances. Candice Bergen, a bit dowdy as Russell’s beleagured wife, Alice, makes do with a role not as substantial as her fellow actors. The rest of the supporting cast, Michael McKean as Russell’s campaign manager and confidante, Dick Jensen; Kerry Butler, the determined and ambitious wife, Mabel Cantwell; and Jefferson Mays, as the mysterious visitor, Sheldon Marcus, are all superb.
Gore Vidal’s play is full of political maneuverings and melodramatic flair. While entertaining, the show occasionally falls prey to its own affectations and grandiloquence.
What gives strength to The Best Man is its timing, opening in the midst of the Republican Presidential primary season. The bombast, rhetoric, and populist prattle of the Romney and Santorum campaign speeches seem to echo in the background of the production, shadowing it with an eerie relevance. The talk of infidelity and mental stress reminds one of Senator Edmund Muskie’s breakdown on the steps of the Manchester Union-Leader; the revelations of Vice Presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton’s electroshock therapy; and Gary Hart’s photo with Donna Rice on the yacht, Monkey Business.
The interconnecting sets by Derek McLane allow for smooth transitions during the many scene changes of the over 2 ½ hour production. Director Michael Wilson keeps the action flowing, allowing the suspense to slowly build to the somewhat surprising denouement. He rightly gives his outstanding cast enough space and leeway to develop their characters and deliver their sometimes powerful and withering monologues.
In today’s world of 24/7 news cycles and numerous social media outlets reshaping the political landscape, The Best Man is a welcoming throwback to the time of just three television networks, Walter Cronkite, and the importance of daily newspapers.