theater (reviews)

review: the best man

The Best Man

by Gore Vidal
Directed by Michael Wilson
Featuring James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Eric McCormack, Candice  Bergen, Jefferson Mays
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street
April 1, 2012 — July 8, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 14, 2012

  • “These days you have to pour God over everything, like ketchup.”
  • “I love the way you are able to state the obvious with a sense of real discovery.”

(L-R) James Earl Jones, John Larroquette. Image by Joan Marcus.

The last time I saw The Best Man I lived in Chicago, it was 2006 and we were deep in the second term of the second George Bush’s presidency. Today we are at the end of the first term of the Democratic successor to that president, I have moved through two cities and now reside in Manhattan, and in a few months time the political party conventions depicted in this play will transpire in anticipation of the 2012 Presidential elections. As with prior productions of this 1960 play, the current  Broadway edition resonates with currency. The themes of this terrific, sharply crafted, well made political play speak for all eras. Yes, you see the carefully placed plot points, mark them, move on, and enjoy the intelligence with which they are blended together as the three acts move forward. American political events are theatre. This American theatre piece that captures events in a political world is storytelling with a laser focus, for grownups with pasts and futures living in a resonant present, presenting themselves. Delicious.

Two political candidates are among those contending for their party’s nomination in Philadelphia in July 1960 where we join them at the convention hotel. William Russell (John Larroquette), once the Secretary of State for ex-President Arthur Hockstader (James Earl Jones), is principled, academic, not as pragmatic as the plainspoken farm boy Hockstader. Russell’s eager and younger opponent Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack) is charming, strategic, determined, cold, and renown for saying precisely what he needs to say to get the next job, the next position, the next vote. Wives and female politicos enter and leave, pushing and prodding from the edges. Russell’s wife Alice (Candice Bergen) has been leading a separate life for some time after a cooling between them and some affairs (on his part) to which they allude but do not blame each other at this point.  Alice has shown up to support her titular husband’s career goals. Cantwell’s small town wife is played to a peroxided and overly-made-up “T” by Kerry Butler. There is a bit of the Lindsay and Crouse State of the Union plot in the Russell marital estrangement here, without that earlier play’s romantic dalliances. It is intriguing that the same irreplaceable and line-perfect actress Angela Lansbury plays the role of the marital dalliance in the 1948 film version of 1945 State of the Union, in which a small town businessman runs for president at the urging of  newspaper woman and career maker Kay Thorndyke, as well as Republican committeewoman Gamadge vetting the two contender’s wives in this 2012 Broadway version of The Best Man.

The supporting cast swarms as reporters, interrupts as staff, and serves the script well. Jefferson Mays as an old Army colleague who holds some secrets that may or may not threaten Cantwell’s political future will break your heart. Yet the play revolves around the three men currently swimming in political waters, holding power or aspiring to that power — Hockstader, Russell, and Cantwell. Who will earn the ex-president’s vote of approval? Will sordid stories from either of the candidate’s pasts be revealed? What is, in the end, a political persona and who in the end is the “best man”?

Set design by Derek McLane contains two pivoting hotel bedrooms providing open spaces for group speaking engagements and more intimate and establishment (wallpapered, Colonial furniture filled) spaces for private negotiations. The set and the theatre is filled with posters, bunting, 1960s-era television monitors that play tape and live feeds of conversations and speeches. Music and sound by John Gromada, and projection design by Peter Nigrini create a powerfully rousing political atmosphere. Strike up the band. And take notes. There are civics lessons in here for every American citizen.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 16, 2012)

1 reply »

  1. Whole-hearted agreement. Remarkable contemporary resonance; Vidal was prescient in anticipating the future of American politics (and politicians). Watching these pros chew the scenery–particularly Jones and Lansbury–is worth the price ofadmission.

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