The Best Man
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 5, 2012
I was looking forward to seeing the new revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man because of the cast: with Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen, Michael McKean, Jefferson Mays, and Eric McCormack on board—that's 13 Emmys, 9 Tonys, 1 honorary Oscar and 1 Kennedy Center Honor, cumulatively—how bad could the show be?
The answer is, not bad at all; quite wonderful in fact. Producer Jeffrey Richards' choice to bring this play back to Broadway at this particular moment is felicitous: The Best Man is enormously resonant, much more pertinent than it was a dozen years ago when it was last produced in NYC; it feels very necessary. Set at a presidential nominating convention, The Best Man pits two candidates against one another, and while they don't map to any actual people in their specifics (and didn't in 1960 when Vidal wrote it, which is why it can endure), the fact that one of them is said to have a brilliant intellect but difficulty connecting with the "common" people and feels woefully indecisive, while the other is a ruthless politician who will do or say anything to get elected president—well, do these characters remind us of anyone in 2012?
Vidal's play—which is half soap opera and half compelling drama of ideas—kept me enthralled for every minute of its 2-1/2 hours, and its faith in the ability of integrity to win out over demagoguery and manipulation of the public made me feel optimistic for a change. Michael Wilson's staging is fluid and smart, adding multimedia that doesn't feel anachronistic and surrounding the entire production—which is masterfully designed by Derek McLane (sets), Ann Roth (costumes), Josh Marquette (hair), Kenneth Posner (lighting), John Gromada (music and sound), and Peter Nigrini (projections)—with a festive all-American ambience that's splendidly evocative of our collective political past.
And the performances, of course, make this show the kind of blue ribbon presentation that can only happen on Broadway (though too seldom does these days). There's not a more impressive ensemble anywhere in NYC right now, not surprisingly, and the chance to savor these fine actors—and watch them appreciate the opportunity to work with one another—is one I'm glad not to have missed. John Larroquette heads the cast as the play's protagonist, William Russell, a brilliant and honorable statesman, once Secretary of State and now the leading candidate for his party's nomination. Russell also has some baggage, though, that makes him a problematic candidate: he's a philanderer, and some years ago he had a nervous breakdown. The discovery of that latter fact is the trump card for his opponent, Joe Cantwell (Eric McCormack), who is the kind of soulless politico for whom ends justify any means, even the potential destruction of another man's personal life. Both men nail their characters, and their climactic confrontation in Act Three is superb.
As their wives, Candice Bergen and Kerry Butler offer a study in contrasts. Bergen is terrific as Alice Russell, a smart, shy, personal, neglected spouse who is (at least temporarily) ending their marital estrangement to help her husband win the presidency. The arc of The Best Man traces the renaissance of the Russells' relationship, and Bergen and Larroquette have the chemistry and balance to make it work. Her natural beauty has been toned down a bit to make her look more matronly and less elegant, but her presence is strong and unfettered. She has some great comic moments as well as some moving dramatic ones, delivering an altogether distinguished and memorable performance. Butler is miscast as Cantwell's grasping, opportunistic wife Mabel; she seems too young and cute and perky and never formidable enough.
Each candidate has a right-hand man, and they're both given expert, appropriately low-key portrayals by Michael McKean (as Dick Jensen, Russell's campaign manager) and Corey Brill (as Don Blades, Cantwell's). Dakin Matthews offers a sly, lived-in performance as a veteran Southern senator, and Jefferson Mays has a strong cameo as a man who served in the army with Cantwell years ago and brings the Russell campaign some damning evidence about him; the scene in which McCormack renews his bullying of the meek Mays character decades later without missing a beat is a highlight. And Sherman Howard, as a news anchorman positioned (as a real one would be) in a box overlooking the stage floor, channels David Brinkley wryly and effectively to narrate the proceedings.
I've saved the best for last. Authentic legend Angela Lansbury steals both scenes she's in; she plays Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, chairman of the Party's Women's Division, and without ever stooping to exaggeration she thoroughly conveys the lethal combination of willful ignorance, practiced charm, and steely resolve that allowed this woman to reach the exalted position she now (in every sense of the word) enjoys.
And James Earl Jones adds another towering, magisterial performance to his resume as former president Artie Hockstader. He's a man who has cultivated an aw-shucks country-boy image to become head of his party and his country, and one who savors the challenge of each political battle. Jones inhabits this man entirely, here turning on the charismatic charm, there lunging with the surprise attack. In a play that doesn't milk audience applause he earns exit ovations twice, giving us a larger-than-life man rendered with vigor, robustness, and authenticity.
This is a rich, rewarding piece; Death of a Salesman is certainly the best play on Broadway right now, but for my money, The Best Man is the best overall theatre experience.