The Best Man
Gore Vidal’s name may be featured on the Schoenfeld Theatre’s marquee, but to make his 1960 play "The Best Man" palatable to Broadway audiences, the producers have not hung their fortunes on his irritable literary reputation alone. They have also packed their revival with stars, thankfully of the talented variety.
Essentially a heaping spoonful of civic castor oil, cut with Vidal’s lacerating humor, the play is a depressingly still-relevant reminder that a good person and a good politician are rarely, if ever, one and the same.
A deceptive note of celebration is struck upon entering the theatre, which director Michael Wilson and scenic designer Derek McLane have transformed into a presidential nominating convention, circa the dawn of yet another new media age. Bedecked with state banners, bunting, and a litter of campaign posters, the setting makes one feel more like an exuberant delegate than a passive spectator.
It is clever stagecraft that serves the play well, since one of Vidal’s goals is to implicate the audience in the dispiriting political drama he presents. A bulky television camera, jumpy black-and-white monitors, and a suave anchorman (Sherman Howard), smoking like a chimney, complete the illusion of time and place.
At the convention, being held in Philadelphia, Senator Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack) and former Secretary of State William Russell (John Larroquette) are vying bitterly for their party’s nomination. To seal the deal, each of them desperately wants to gain the endorsement of beloved ex-president Arthur "Artie" Hockstader (James Earl Jones), whose support could decidedly tip the delegate scale one way or the other.
Playing Hockstader’s Machiavellian folksiness to the hilt, Jones is the picture of glee as his character savors his last chance to influence the course of history. A disciple of populist rabble-rousers like William Jennings Bryan, Hockstader is a dying breed of politician: the self-made man just corrupt enough to attain power but not so dissolute that he forgets about the little guy. With "The Best Man," Vidal eulogizes the lot of them.
As for Russell and Cantwell, they are locked in a fight in which principles are beside the point. With the advent of television, image is king and the one-size-fits-all sound bite has become the sine qua non of American politics. Russell loathes this changed electoral reality, while Cantwell has already mastered it.
An urbane intellectual, Russell appears to be seeking the nomination for all the right reasons; chief among them, he wants to help people, genuinely. Infused with a steadfast sense of noblesse oblige and the smarts to make it meaningful, he is, in Hockstader’s words, "a superior man."
But he is not a perfect man, at least not when it comes to his private life; and, unfortunately for Russell, the viperous Cantwell, who certainly lives down to his surname, is more than willing to make the personal political.
Russell’s closet holds a couple of damning secrets: a remorseful philanderer, he also once suffered a nervous breakdown. Although womanizing is a hurdle to the nomination, Russell and his campaign manager Dick Jensen (Michael McKean) realize that doubts about a candidate’s mental health cannot be overcome (a lesson John McCain learned in 2000).
All is not lost, however, because Jensen has located an old Army subordinate (Jefferson Mays) of Cantwell’s, who might be able to prove that the self-righteous senator has an undisclosed vulnerability of his own: the closet itself. Obviously, in 1960 America (and, sadly, wide swaths of 2012 America), Cantwell’s hopes for elective office could not survive this accusation, let alone evidence of it.
For political animals like Jensen and Hockstader, when the choice is to kill or be killed, the answer is a no-brainer: attack, attack, attack! Conversely, much to their bafflement, Russell cannot continue his struggle for the nomination without first wrestling with his conscience.
As he does so, Russell has one surprisingly loyal ally: Mrs. Russell (Candice Bergen). Despite his infidelities, she has decided to stick by her husband’s side, apparently for the good of the country and because of some lingering affection for a man she still regards as exceptional.
Smartly, Bergen does not portray her as a pushover but, instead, as a reluctant and world-weary public figure taking advantage of the sole agency she has to help others: putting a decent leader, who has hurt her terribly, in the White House. Without a doubt, she is the play’s most touching character.
In addition to enduring fusillades of inane press questions, Mrs. Russell must also contend with the backhanded advice of Sue-Ellen Gamadge (Angela Lansbury), chair of the party’s Women’s Division, as well as the jealous sniping of the senator’s vulgarly ambitious wife Mabel Cantwell (Kerry Butler).
Lansbury and Butler give two great comic performances, though from opposite ends of the subtlety spectrum. Whereas Lansbury brings down the house by tapping into her character’s Southern manners, Butler does the same through Mabel Cantwell’s lack of them.
The true villain of Vidal’s state-of-the-union satire, however, is not the conniving Cantwells, the dense Mrs. Gamadge, or anyone else who appears onstage. Rather, it is us -- the naive, ill-informed, indifferent, proudly biased, and scandal-driven masses -- who, in Vidal’s estimation, are at the root of America’s dysfunctional democracy. More than fifty years on, and the charge is as difficult as ever to refute.