Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 1, 2012
The Best Man by Gore Vidal. Directed by Michael Wilson. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Original music/sound design by John Gromada. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Hair design by Josh Marquette. Cast: James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack, Kerry Butler, Jefferson Mays, Michael McKean, and Angela Lansbury, with Curtis Billings, Corey Brill, Tony Carlin, Donna Hanover, Sherman Howard, Olja Hrustic, Bill Kux, James Lecesne, Dakin Matthews, Angelica Page, Fred Parker, Amy Tribbey.
Whichever of those is at the center of the action here has been left unnamed; this story about the run-up to a national convention exclusively concerns two men from opposing wings of one party fighting for the top slot. The liberal is William Russell, an ex-governor and secretary of state, patrician, and intellectual (he frequently quotes the likes of Bertrand Russell and Oliver Cromwell), who is up against Joseph Cantwell, an ostensibly conservative senator who touts his self-made fortunes and his religious background. Both have converged on Philadelphia determined to convince each other and their delegates that there's only one choice, and the sooner it's made, the sooner the country gets the leader it deserves. (It is presumed time and time again, beyond the realm of mere confidence, that whichever man wins will be the next president.)
Already you may be surmising that the play has retained a shocking amount of relevance in the 52 years since its premiere, or even in the 11 since its last (and lesser) Broadway revival. That's certainly true from this most basic outline, and only becomes more concrete when the candidates alternately ponder mud-slinging (one has a questionable medical background, the other a potentially devastating sexual secret), or fret among themselves about the marriages, families, and infidelities that may or may not have any place in the White House. Elections, like their participants, apparently don't evolve much. (About the most dated aspect is that the convention here is open, which is a rare but still muttered-about—occurrence these days.)
Because Vidal has written as much a thriller as a critique of a perpetually broken enterprise, to reveal too much more about the plot machinations would be to derive you of a juicy, and often downright nail-biting, evening. If Vidal paints primarily in broad, obvious strokes — such as by stacking the dramatic deck in Russell's favor (in terms of stage time as well as development) and introducing easy characters like the dying former president who can't decide between endorsing Russell and Cantwell or Mrs. Gamadge, the dotty chair of the “women's division” — his writing is as incisive as it is poetic, and alternately damning and optimistic. In acknowledging the problems with the existing system, he also points to their solutions in the last place anyone in this business would look for them: the soul.
Director Michael Wilson emphasizes all those qualities, staging with gusto and carefully balancing the frenzy of the outside world (the newscasts, the floor speeches, and of course the armies of reporters) with the backroom deals and interpersonal exchanges in which the course of the nomination is actually hashed out. Scenic designer Derek McLane has devised an attractive set that rotates between two elegant hotel rooms and the convention floor, and extended the excitement into the audience with television monitors, patriotic bunting, and delegation signs that make you feel like you're really immersed in the action. Ann Roth's costumes burst with the flavorless details so characteristic of many public figures' wardrobes, and Kenneth Posner's lights, John Gromada's sound, and Peter Nigrini's projections nicely help complete the picture.
Angela Lansbury gives a cooing but indefinite take on Mrs. Gamadge that's only marginally more colorful; the same is true of Jefferson Mays as a secret-bearing import from Delaware, who makes only one choice (to be neurotic) but at least has the courage to run with it. Corey Brill, playing Cantwell's campaign manager, and Sherman Howard, as an enthusiastic TV commentator, do better still at rounding out their parts. Eric McCormack and Kerry Butler bring ragged Southern charm to Cantwell and his wife, making the duo at once likable and greasy, with Butler layering her broadness with slightly more genuine heart.
Dakin Matthews, however, delivers a slam-bang performance as an influential Midwest senator, delighting in kingmaking within the power structure in which he's entrenched. And James Earl Jones is warm, raucous, and a pure delight as Arthur Hockstader, the former president who wants to prove he still has what it takes. Punching through walls of artifice with a sharp cackle and ready-for-anything country drawl that pop from the same ingratiating smile, he goes further than anyone at demonstrating the good that politics is capable of, the toll it takes on anyone crazy enough to enter the game, and the compromises that so frequently fall in between.
Hockstader may be on his final downward spiral, but in Jones's hands he's a president who, like a soldier, is fated to fade away rather than expire; what he did, and did not do, will live beyond him. The fight for this kind of firm impermanence, in the theatrical world and in our own, is what keeps Vidal's play electrifying. And besides, even in an imperfect rendering, as here, it's piercingly topical: You may wish for a better slate of onstage candidates, but for most voters isn't that just as true of the United States in 2012? Maybe the best man doesn't always win (when there is one), but The Best Man always seems to come out on top.