Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Gore Vidal's The Best Man at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
A Presidential election has produced a political convention that is deeply divided. The two frontrunners for the nomination are two very different prospects. William Russell, a former Secretary of State, is the establishment candidate. Known for his integrity in his political dealings he has damaging secrets in his personal life. Senator Joseph Cantwell is the brash rising star, deeply religious with the picture perfect wife and family, he has a reputation for winning by any means possible. Both men seek the endorsement of former President Arthur Hockstader, feeling that such an endorsement could be the key to break the deadlock votes and win the coveted nomination. When Secretary Russell is offered damaging information on Senator Cantwell, will he stoop to his opponent's tactics to in order to win?
Gore Vidal's The Best Man was written in 1960 and in many ways it is a play of its time. The conflict over hiding the personal foibles of political candidates is frankly quaint and outdated in the era of 24/7 news cycles and the instant gratification of twitter and other social media outlets. The very idea that these candidates would be able to hide their secrets from the press is very much of the era in which it was written. These days it would not be the candidates threatening to make these revelations public. It would be the cleaning woman and the bell boy tweeting the juicy details. While watching The Best Man I could not help these thoughts coming to the surface and wondering how an update to modern times using the same premise would change the outcome of the story. Despite the dated concept, Gore Vidal's The Best Man is an interesting drama well-acted by its extremely star-studded cast.
Star-studded cast? One only needs to gaze at the banner above the marquee to see the high wattage performers director Michael Wilson has assembled on the Gerald Schoenfeld stage. While it is a delight to see so many well-known performers tackle this material, there is the nagging question of can there be too many stars on one stage? Despite the interruptions caused by multiple applause breaks (five the performance I attended), the answer is no. For the most part each of the stars is extremely well cast, any egos are checked at the stage door and there are very compelling performances.
The true stars of the play are the rival candidates Secretary Russell and Senator Cantwell. John Larroquette conveys a quiet dignity as Secretary Russell. His dealings with his frustrated staff, led by campaign manager Dick Jensen (the earnest Michael McKean) show a leader who is in control of his side of the game despite the pleadings of his workers. Mr. Larroquette conveys heartfelt anguish in Secretary Russell's devastating relationship with his estranged wife, Alice (Candice Bergen perfect as the suffering betrayed political spouse). Mr. Larroquette gives Secretary Russell a sympathetic portrayal of a man who is, in reality,a womanizing cad.
On the other side of the coin is Eric McCormack's slick slime ball Senator Cantwell. Clearly written as the unsympathetic candidate, Mr. McCormick creates depth from what could be a very shallow villain. Senator Cantwell wears God, America and apple pie on his ever ready for the media face. Aided by his take no prisoners campaign manager, Don Blades (eager Corey Brill) and his partner in ambition, trophy wife Mabel (charming with fangs behind the beauty queen smile Kerry Butler), Cantwell weasels his way through every speed bump the evening presents to his side. Yet, his confidence is missing a vital element and his need to destroy his opponents nearly derails his goals.
Into this fray are several minor characters who provide critical plot points. Angela Lansbury portrays Sue-Ellen Gamadge, the Chairman of the Women's Division. Charming in the small role, Miss Lansbury channels the leader of the women's vote with the slight edge of a political force that can give vital support to either candidate. The only issue is that her southern accent comes and goes. Dakin Matthews' Senator Clyde Carlin sways with each change of the political winds of fortune.
Then there are "The Visitors" brought in by both campaigns to provide damaging information to persuade the other candidate to drop out of the race. Bill Kux portrays the unethical Dr. Artinian who breaks doctor patient confidentially with only a drop of remorse. Jefferson Mays is fascinating as Sheldon Marcus, a former military colleague of Senator Cantwell forced against his will to provide information on the Senator that could destroy his both the Senator's entire political career and Mr. Marcus' quiet life. Mr. Mays is tentative and reluctant and easily persuaded by both sides to give contradictory information. It is a compelling performance that will leave you wondering in the end where the truth lies.
Pivotal to both candidates chances to be nominated is the endorsement of President Arthur Hockstader. James Earl Jones delivers a charismatic performance as the seriously ill former president traveling between bathroom suites to hide his visits to both candidates while feeling out each man before deciding whom to anoint with his favor. It is a charming and dominate performance that fits the importance of the character.
Derek McLane set design has transformed the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre into a boisterous convention hall with bunting, state banners and 1960's era television screens. Ann Roth has created costumes that, while of the early 1960's, clearly help distinguish the personalities of the candidates particularly the three main women's roles. Michael Wilson directs his ensemble with a steady hand that brings forth both the humor and the pathos of Gore Vidal's script. It is only the fault of the script that makes it fairly obvious who will win the nomination. Yet, that is not the real ending of the story. The real ending is seeing who is the actual winner of this unconventional morality play.
Gore Vidal's The Best Man is being presented at Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in a limited engagement through July 8, 2012. For tickets please visit www.telecharge.com.