Broadway Reviews

The Best Man
(Revisited)

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.
Theatre: Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, including two intermissions
Audience: Appropriate 12 +. Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Tuesdayat 7 pm, Wednesday at 2 pm & 7:30 pm, Thursday at 7 pm, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 pm & 8 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Ticket prices: $67 - $227
Tickets: Telecharge

The Best Man
John Stamos and John Larroquette seated, with Corey Brill standing.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

With the 2012 presidential campaign having entered the long, dry march to November, and accusations of this and mud-hurling about that clogging already every news story, the very thought of attending a political play might be enough to send you running for the door at full scream. But Michael Wilson's revival of The Best Man, which continues to run at the Gerald Schoenfeld through September 9, remains at least what it's been since it opened late last season — a rejuvenating corrective to the insanities and inanities of American politics — and in some ways it's better. Even if it's just for two and a half hours, an equal dose of "the way things used to be" with "the way things ought to be" is enough to steel your nerves until our own race for the White House becomes an entry for the history books.

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.

The Best Man
Elizabeth Ashley, Cybill Shepherd, Kristin Davis, and Donna Hanover.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

This is true of the other newcomers as well. Cybill Shepherd brings a defeated, frosty resolve to Russell's wife, Alice, that sweats in the hot heat of the paparazzi's flashbulbs into which she's thrust — she is every bit as public a creature as he is, but even more protective of her idealism and thus better able to negotiate changes in circumstance that prove vital to her role. Both Mark Blum, as Russell's campaign manager, and Elizabeth Ashley, as the chair of the party's women's division, are returning to characters they played in the 2000 revival, and are deeper and more exciting now: Blum maximizes every bamboo-under-the-fingernails moment in which he shows where the actual power lies, and Ashley vividly controls the narrative with harshly lilting Southern exclamations, clasps of the hands, or pregnant glances. Kristin Davis, excellent in her Broadway debut as Mabel, amplifies Ashley by essaying a more devious but no less effective take on what it means to be a woman behind a man in charge.

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.


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