Review: The Best Man

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Photo by Joan Marcus

Dear Gore Vidal,

How did you know? How did you know that the ridiculous, raucous political intrigue depicted in your 1960 play, The Best Man (now in its second for-profit, commercial revival on Broadway, at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre), would remain not just relevant to 2012 audiences but prove alarmingly prescient?

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Your setup could have been inked by Shakespeare. Two hotly warring factions are battling for presidential power. At a political convention in Philadelphia (for a party whose identity is wonderfully omitted), there’s William Russell (John Larroquette, in solid-man mode), a one-time Secretary of State and lifetime blue-blood who exemplifies the high ethical standards we once associated with old money, leading for the nomination.

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Russell has baggage-such as his wife, Alice (the mirth-making, deadpan Candice Bergen), and their for-show marriage-but it won’t stop him for grabbing the brass ring should he really want it. His rival for the presidential nod, Senator Joseph Cantwell (a smarmy, Rick Santorum-y Eric McCormack), is ravenous for power, no doubt driven by having risen so far already from his modest roots. For him, the U.S. Senate, where members may orate for however long they like, can never be enough — he doesn’t actually have much to say when you dig deep into what he really believes. His wife, Mabel (the too-spunky Kerry Butler), is the perfect match for such a man.

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Enter the party patriarch, President Hockstader (the magisterial James Earl Jones), who is keenly aware that is political moment is passing, since he is keenly aware that he is dying. His endorsement, the play implies, means a likely electoral win for the recipient; but like a wise and mildly sadistic King Lear, he leaves it to each of the men to earn it, to fight it out. Politics being politics, each camp possesses potentially career-derailing dirt on the other side-one of the candidates has a psychological secret in his closet; the other one has, or may have, a sexual secret in his. The question is if, when and how such dirt will be flung, by whom, to what end, and what either candidate may or may not want to do to stop said dirt from flying, what with their futures, and the nation’s future, in the balance.

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That Russell and Cantwell are unevenly matched in terms of their temperament is the masterstroke of your play, Mr. Vidal. I trust you know that. However eager Cantwell may be to destroy Russell, the prohibitive favorite, Russell’s moral rectitude throws Cantwell off — he’s never met an honest man in his life. As the machinations, backstabbing and scheming unfolds and twists and turns, we are clearly reminded that there can be only one “best man” elected to the presidency. And, as in all presidential contests, that “best man” may not actually be on the ballot. (Like I said, how did you know?)

Amid Hockstader’s way of playing footsie with the plot as you designed it, and amid the drollness of Russell’s campaign manager, Dick Jensen (a weary Michael McKean), there is Sue-Ellen Gamadge (a timelessly dotty Angela Lansbury), a grande dame to put all other grande dames to shame. Then there is Dr. Artinian (Bill Kux), a psychologist, and Sheldon Marcus (a reliably nervous Jefferson Mays), whose revelations about Cantwell kick the play, at long last, into the highest dramatic gear.

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Your dialogue sports fleeting allusions to political viewpoints-Cantwell would certainly govern more conservatively than liberal Russell. Yet what I marvel at, Mr. Vidal, is how you give the play such a pulse of life without besetting it with topical subjects that would now date it. For a play from 1960, you’d expect commentary on the Commies, bashing bourgeois bohemians. It is a tribute to your handiwork that no sense of time or era can be identified in director Michael Wilson’s production; it could take place today, tomorrow, yesterday, 52 years ago, or only in your mind. For about a second, or maybe four or five seconds, we’re highly conscious of Jones being African-American — conscious of the ludicrous notion of there having been a black president in 1960. And then you look back at what this nation triumphantly did in 2008 and those four or five seconds fade quickly. Plus, Jones is clearly having a ball; he is a master class in singular performance as well as the headlights of the ensemble.

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You never did write a sequel to The Best Man — not that I could imagine what could take place in one. Given, though, how relevant the play feels to our own, high-stakes moment in political time, I wonder if you’d consider sketching one out for us. After all, we know how your play-and the mythical election depicted in it-comes out. I just shudder at the thought of what kind of tragicomedy comes after it.