I will give you three very good reasons why Gore Vidal’s The Best Man is one of the must-see shows in this overcrowded theater season (in which so many shows are opening at the same time to nab as many Tony nominations as possible): First, it is a well-written and constructed play, the likes of which they do not write anymore. Second, it is a well-mounted and directed production with no expenses spared, thanks to Michael Wilson. And third: it features an all-star cast, giving first-rate performances.
Political plays set or revived during a presidential election year seem like overkill and a tad trite. After all, we do live in an era of television, mobile smartphones, and You Tube, so what could possibly be written in a play that we do not have access to at our fingertips? Set and written in 1960 at the Philadelphia Convention, when conventions were actually interesting and a presidential nominee could get a nomination at the last minute, The Best Man represents those thrilling times of personal mudslinging and not the boring and listless flip-flopping debates we have today.
The opponents here are Secretary William Russell, the intellectual moralist (John Larroquette); and Joseph Cantwell, the opportunist senator with no moral scruples (Eric McCormack).
Of course, they both have proverbial skeletons in their closets, and how they go about using this baggage to their advantage is the crux of this show. They are both vying for the endorsement of former president Arthur Hockstader (James Earl Jones), who is having a ball on the stage. Let’s not forget the wives who play an important part in any election:the cool and regal Alice Russell (Candice Bergen); and Mabel Cantwell, the ditsy Southern belle (Kerry Butler).
In this mix, throw in the always sublime Angela Lansbury as Chairman of the Women’s Committee (Mrs. Gamadge), who adds mischief to every one of her lines; Michael McKean as Russell’s campaign manager, Dick Jensen; and Jefferson Mays as an informant (Sheldon Marcus). Whether the parts are large or small, these pros make the most of each of their lines. With all the aforementioned stars delivering fine performances, who could ask for anything more?
The theater is made to look like a convention hall, and the sets on stage by Derek McLane are top notch, as are the costumes by Ann Roth; both truly capture the essence of the times. Whether one likes political dramas or not, The Best Man hits all the right notes. At times, it may seem dated because of all the material at our disposal today. However, one has to go with an open mind to encounter a different time when candidates actually mattered as politicians and did not just rely on spin-doctors to create myths, illusions, and double-talking rhetoric.
Edited by Scott Harrah Published April 6, 2012 Reviewed at press performance on April 5, 2012