Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 5, 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, Cybill Shepherd, John Stamos, Kristin Davis, Jefferson Mays, Mark Blumand, Elizabeth Ashley, with Curtis Billings, Corey Brill, Tony Carlin, Donna Hanover, Sherman Howard, Olja Hrustic, Bill Kux, James Lecesne, Angelica Page, Fred Parker, Amy Tribbey, and Dakin Matthews.
This remains no minor achievement, but it's one for which all Broadway theatregoers should be grateful to the biting comedy's playwright. Gore Vidal, who died last week at age 86, captured in his 1960 work the brains, blood, and bile that simmer at the heart of any race for high office, but without the fatalism that usually accompanies similar tellings today. The play convinces you that, despite frequent evidence to the contrary, sometimes things do indeed end as they should, even when not all the steps along the journey are perfect. If that's not enough, maybe — just maybe — you'll walk out of the theater believing in a system that, these days at least, rarely encourages it.
Don't be surprised if it also reaffirms your faith in the theatre's own self-healing abilities. When this production opened, it succeeded as most politicians do: in spite of itself. Though cunningly staged, on a constantly moving Philadelphia hotel set (by Derek McLane) and with the house transformed into the forest of red-white-and-blue bunting that is the convention hall in which so much of the offstage drama takes place, a couple of key star-turn central performances unbalanced the action and dislocated its heart. Time and some recasting, however, have imbued the evening with a stronger (ahem) constitution that has helped everyone further elevate their highs, deepen their lows, and augment their go-for-broke journeys in between.
John Larroquette has mellowed and smoothed out considerably as William Russell, the liberal former governor and secretary of state vying for his (unidentified) party's nomination against the more outwardly conservative Joseph Cantwell. Whereas Larroquette previously communicated mostly just the stature of an awkward politician, he's now discovered richer hues in the Bertrand Russell and Oliver Cromwell–quoting candidate. You sense, as you didn't before, that the greatest battle Russell is fighting is against himself: to maintain his steadfastness of beliefs while discovering the best ways to express and act on them to both the electorate and the people around him. He seems to know now that he's fighting an uphill battle and is more prepared for the conflict, making for a more convincing fall when he realizes one can only prepare so much for some eventualities.
It's an affecting take on the character, and one that compensates for the writing's tendency to favor Russell more than it perhaps strictly should. The ease with which Larroquette juggles Russell's comedic and serious aspects — he makes decisions by walking a certain way across the carpet, he once suffered a nervous breakdown that is now coming back to haunt him — has improved as well, so he feels like more of a complete person than the unvarnished symbol of ideological purity he can too often resemble (and, in fact, did earlier in the show's run). An extra streak of regret, over what he's able to do and what he isn't, darkens Russell further, guiding him closer to the realm of tragedy than you might otherwise have thought possible. It's compelling work that, if it's still not as supple as it could be, is much welcome.
Although he hasn't spun equivalent magic on Cantwell since replacing Eric McCormack, John Stamos has shored up that sector of the production as well. Stamos is angrier, yes, but also earthier: more openly sexual in his dealings with his wife, Mabel, and more grittily aware of his driving his own destiny. He's determined throughout to use a man's tools to win a man's race, but when opportunity potentially slips from his grasp, you see him awakening to the more damning realities of the God he professes to believe in. He sits, stunned to an unthinkable immobility as he considers everything he's on the verge of losing. As with political organizations in real life (for better or worse), the extremes he traverses makes his portrayal that much more forceful.
Of the other original actors who remain on hand, Corey Brill has sharpened his edges as Cantwell's manager, Jefferson Mays has calmed down a bit as Russell's human secret weapon, and James Earl Jones has retained every bit of his bite as former president Arthur Hockstader and is, surprisingly, having even more fun. The kingmaker who can't decide between endorsing Russell and Cantwell has a mischievous spirit and unleashes capricious taunts that highlight the impossible dream of the political world: someone who can't be fully separated from his roots in the body of the people he serves. Both Russell and Cantwell see Hockstader as their ideal, and think they can appropriate his name and blessing without doing everything to earn it that he did.
Living up to that can't be easy, but Jones and Hockstader make the task appear effortless. They never let you forget that life is seldom as easy as Russell and Cantwell want it, and even politics is never as expedient. They're fitting reminders of exactly what's at stake for all those in the play, and for the rest of us, as the question of leadership becomes increasingly unavoidable. Maybe you can't always have who you want or deserve, but there's never a reason to give up the fight entirely. The right man may become either the wrong man or the best man at a moment's notice, and if you don't follow the game you'll never know for sure. Perhaps The Best Man itself isn't yet the best it could be, but it's even closer now than it once was.