Politics, the writer Gore Vidal once reminded us, is made up of two words: "`Poli,' which is Greek for `many,' and `tics,' which are bloodsucking insects." What was implied was also true — that those same darn pests turn up year after year.
Now that the weather is warming up and this current election cycle is heating up, one of Vidal's timeless pieces of writing is buzzing once again. His 1960 play about rival presidential candidates, "The Best Man," opened Sunday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, sadly proving the writer astonishingly prescient.
Set in Philadelphia during a fictional 1960 national convention, "Gore Vidal's The Best Man" pits two candidates vying for their unnamed party's presidential nomination — the East Coast intellectual Bill Russell, a former U.S. secretary of state, and the venal Tennessee Sen. Joe Cantwell.
The hard-nosed Cantwell, for whom the end always justifies the means, tries to force Russell out of the race by threatening to release embarrassing medical records. The morally fastidious Russell has to decide whether to retaliate with even more shocking evidence on his rival.
"One by one, these compromises, these small corruptions destroy character," Russell says. "Once this sort of thing starts, there is no end to it, which is why it should never begin."
You'll be clapping a lot during the 2 1/2-hour show — mainly just to welcome an embarrassment of riches on stage: James Earl Jones. Angela Lansbury. John Larroquette. Candice Bergen. Eric McCormack. Michael McKean and Kerry Butler. It's like a greatest hits album on stage. Director Michael Wilson gives each a moment to shine and excitingly paces the play like a thriller.
Vidal's words may be more than 50 years old, but there are virtually no anachronistic bits. He predicted a political fight over the disclosure of medical records, negative campaigning, randy politicians, strained political marriages, first lady activism, arguments over mental fitness for office, elitism versus populism, the role of the Roman Catholic Church, poll-driven pols, pandering through religion and tax cuts, and even a political scuffle over birth control.
The quips flow freely and, with this cast, the satire is made archly delicious. "The terrible thing about running for President is you become a compulsive talker, forever answering questions no one has asked you," says Larroquette's Russell.
Larroquette is perfectly cast as a goodhearted Hamlet, who unfortunately for him, quotes Hamlet. "Don't try to be smart-alecky and talk over their heads," warns the powerful committee woman, played with doddering upper-crust charm by Lansbury.
In this thoughtful, still-idealistic man's corner is his estranged wife, who is played with a weariness by Bergen, and McKean as his campaign manager who is often exasperated by his boss' refusal to get down into the political mud.
McCormack plays Cantwell with the slickness and petulance of a man with unquenchable ambition, always ready for the next chess move even if no one else is playing. His wife, played with obvious delight by Butler, is bubbly but dangerously so — underestimate her and you won't notice the knife sticking out of your back.
The biggest cheers are reserved for Jones, who plays an ailing, plainspoken former president whose endorsement both sides need desperately. He loves a good whiskey, recalls a political past when "you had to pour God over everything like ketchup," and especially comes to life when there's a knockdown battle on his hands.
"I tell you there is nothin' like a dirty-low-down political fight to put the roses in your cheeks," he says, and Jones seems to drop two decades as he says it.
This play was last on Broadway during the campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore and the subsequent legal battle in the fall of 2000. This edition — unnecessarily re-titled with the author's name, perhaps to distinguish it from a play about a wedding — will likely get a boost if the Republicans continue their long painful slog toward picking a presidential nominee.
All the action takes place over several days in a hotel and Derek McLane's revolving rooms are artfully and richly decorated with tasteful cream-colored furniture and plenty of oil paintings of Founding Fathers. A few nice touches transform theatergoers into convention participants, with ushers wearing red-white-and-blue hats, political signs sprinkled about and one of the theater's boxes converted into a broadcasting booth for an actor playing a newscaster to frame the scenes.
While Vidal clearly has sympathy for Russell, he betrays not a little admiration for Cantwell, too, making the play richer and fairer. In the end, Russell finds a creative solution to stop Cantwell from being nominated, but Vidal seems to be saying that it ultimately doesn't really matter who wins: Our public politicians all seem bland and selfless, very different from the spiky, power-mad private ones. Or, as Russell's wife's says, "We are all interchangeably inoffensive."
Politics is a dirty business. No shock there. Just read or watch the news.
So if in 1960 the candidates were different, the game was the same — smear or be smeared.
That idea beats at the heart of Gore Vidal’s diverting dramedy “The Best Man,” about candidates battling for a party’s presidential nomination. Both have damaging info on the other. Who will use it?
The play, like a lot of speeches, is witty but long-winded. At times it’s implausible. At others it’s prescient — a pivotal bit about mental health records recalls 1972 veep nominee Thomas Eagleton.
Director Michael Wilson’s cast is like the U.S. flag — stars of every stripe from film, TV and stage.
Two old pros bring big waves of vitality to the revival. As blustery ex-President Arthur Hockstader, whose support could sway the tight race, James Earl Jones is as persuasive and captivating as a bullhorn.
Just as great is Angela Lansbury in her irresistibly tart and smart turn as Sue-Ellen Gamadge, chairwoman of the women’s division. Don’t let Sue’s ruffles fool you, she’s a shrewd operator.
The key candidates are played by two appealing Emmy winners. John Larroquette makes a stately and steady William Russell, the gentlemanly liberal contender for the party nod.
Eric McCormack works a sly smile overtime as his scheming opponent, Sen Joseph Cantwell. Even his name beams unscrupulousness.
Candice Bergen plays Alice Russell, whose complicated marriage gets a fair amount of focus. Bergen has always had her own style and cadence, and Alice speaks and moves in an odd slow motion, especially when compared to Kerry Butler’s take on Mrs. Mabel Cantwell. Everything about her is amusingly pushed-up — from molasses drawl to curvy figure.
Lending support are Michael McKean as Russell’s campaign manager, Jefferson Mays as a nervous snitch and former Gracie Mansion resident Donna Hanover as a reporter.
Vidal’s characters are a mashup of political celebs of the era when he wrote the late 1950s. But hopefuls who’ve come and gone and are stumping today fit the mold.
The play unfolds in linear fashion amid red, white and blue bunting. Then comes an 11th-hour twist. No spoiler here. The most fascinating thing about “Best Man” is that the author seemingly depicts a surprise development as noble, when it’s anything but. The turn is incredibly cynical.
Politics, showbiz and big business run by the same laws of winning and losing: “If I’m going down, I’m going to take you down with me.” It’s the American way.
Gore Vidal's The Best Man - Reviews Manager
The most memorable part of “The Best Man” is the women.
Gore Vidal’s 1960 chestnut may center on three powerful male politicians, but it’s the ladies hovering on the periphery who steal this new Broadway revival.
Despite smaller parts and stiff competition — this show is starrier than a cloudless mountain sky — Angela Lansbury, Candice Bergen and Kerry Butler shine brightest. The one scene this trio shares is a rare moment when Michael Wilson’s overly decorous production chomps with the right satirical bite.
Bergen and Butler play refined Alice and bubbly Mabel, the wives of William Russell (John Larroquette) and Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack), respectively. The men — one secretary of state, the other a senator — are presidential contenders locked in a nasty fight at their unnamed party’s convention. Remember: It’s the summer of 1960, back when hopeful nominees could scramble to win delegates up until the last minute.
Much of the play revolves around the confrontation between those two bitter rivals and their clearly opposite types.
Russell is a liberal, well-bred intellectual who quotes philosophers, and aims for the moral high ground in politics. He doesn’t want to stoop to personal attacks or exploit voters’ ignorance — “In the South, a candidate for sheriff once got elected by claiming that his opponent’s wife had been a thespian,” he remarks.
But Russell’s womanizing caused a rift with Alice, and she’s reluctantly come back to his side for the campaign’s sake.
The younger, self-made Cantwell couldn’t be more different. He and Mabel are united by raw ambition. Under his slick, charming exterior, Cantwell’s a ruthless populist who’ll stop at nothing to get elected.
Playing referee is the incumbent president, an ostensibly folksy fellow named Arthur Hockstader. That would be James Earl Jones — told you this cast was loaded — so it’s best to block out the fact that only in a bizarro universe would an African-American have been POTUS in the 1950s.
Vidal has a grand time setting up behind-the-scenes machinations — each candidate has dirt on the other — and an even grander one firing off pithy exchanges and witty epigrams. “It’s par for the course trying to fool the people,” Hockstader warns the conniving Cantwell, “but it’s downright dangerous when you start fooling yourself.”
If only the show’s tempo were as punchy.
As fine as Larroquette and McCormack are, there doesn’t seem to be any heartfelt anger in their battle — and this sucks out a lot of the play’s energy.
On the other hand, Bergen, Butler and Lansbury have a ball with Vidal’s causticity, especially since each comes at it in her own distinct style.
With the least stage experience of them all, Bergen gets a lot from a little: an eye roll here, a sudden stiffening there. Butler (“Xanadu,” “Hairspray”) goes the opposite way, with her Mabel an outsize, cartoonish ancestor to the tough-as-nails belles of TV’s “GCB.” When these two face off, the air is charged with electricity.
As for Lansbury, the mere sight of her party operative sipping Coca-Cola through a straw is comedy gold. That’s how pros get the audience’s vote.
Yards and yards of patriotic bunting stun the senses as you enter the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, where a revival of “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man” opened on Sunday night. Television monitors displaying black-and-white footage hang from boxes that frame the stage, and the usher handing you your program wears a festive boater with red, white and blue trim. The aim is to give the audience a sense of being present at a presidential nominating convention in Philadelphia in 1960, where the play is set.
I suspect the producers could have spared themselves the expense of all this you-are-there paraphernalia. By the time the curtain came down on this starry but sluggish production, and a nominee had been formally announced, I did feel as if I’d endured a particularly fractious and constipated evening at a political convention. Need I add that acquiring this experience has never been one of my great ambitions?
Mr. Vidal’s drama about backroom deal making and the withering of America’s political discourse first opened on Broadway in 1960, back when party conventions in election years were still suspenseful battles for delegates and not ceremonial coronations of preselected candidates. There has been talk that this year’s campaign for the Republican nomination might go down to the wire, old-school style, which adds a small fillip of fresh topicality to this production, directed by Michael Wilson and featuring a glittering dais of stars, including James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, John Larroquette and Eric McCormack. (The previous Broadway revival also opened during an election year, in 2000.)
Unfortunately a thin veneer of currency isn’t sufficient to revitalize a drama that feels positively quaint, despite Mr. Vidal’s winking cynicism about the political arena and his undeniable prescience about future trends in American politicking. He was certainly on target in noting the corrupting influence of television cameras on the tone of political campaigns and the rise of pandering populism as a crucial element in the playbook of any politician hoping to make headway in a presidential contest.
But anyone following politics with even the slightest peripheral vision is acutely aware of how radically the landscape has changed. The toxins Mr. Vidal was identifying in 1960 as hovering threats on the democratic horizon are now confirmed facts of political life, so that this once-trenchant drama — concerning a battle for the nomination between a high-minded, deeply moral candidate and his canny, cutthroat rival — feels like a civics lesson drawn from a long out-of-date textbook.
Mr. Larroquette (a Tony winner last year for “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”) and Mr. McCormack (television’s “Will & Grace”) play the contrasting characters dueling for the top prize of the carefully unnamed political party. William Russell (Mr. Larroquette) is the patrician candidate who exemplifies the ideals Mr. Vidal clearly favors in a man and a president: intelligence, probity, a Harvard degree and a healthy distaste for the grim business of currying the favor of voters by coddling their baser instincts. (His campaign manager, expertly played by Michael McKean, has to restrain him from dropping too many erudite references to the likes of Bertrand Russell and Oliver Cromwell at his news conferences.) He’s no saint, however: long estranged from his wife, Alice (Candice Bergen), Russell has a reputation for philandering, a detail that must have seemed daring in 1960 but inspires a yawn in the post-Clinton, post-Edwards era.
Joseph Cantwell (Mr. McCormack) is the ambitious senator who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, attended a state school and has no qualms about using any and all means available to gain an upper hand over his more well-connected rival. This means smearing Russell by revealing his past history of psychological frailty.
Cantwell is clearly meant to represent the degenerative tendencies in American politics of Mr. Vidal’s era (which have only metastasized our own), but I have to admit that from a theatrical standpoint the cool savagery embodied by Mr. McCormack’s Cantwell, all camera-ready smiles and animal energy, proves to be far more appealing than the tormented nobility of Mr. Larroquette’s Russell.
Mr. Larroquette gives a restrained performance, doling out Russell’s wise musings — on the anathema of personality politics, on the importance of leading men as opposed to following polls, on the relentless artifice involved in campaigning — with a studied air of pained, weary wisdom. But the character comes across as alternately a dispenser of high-toned, dryly ironic jokes or a lecturer on ethics. Mr. McCormack’s slippery Cantwell may be repellent in his ruthlessness, but at least he’s not a snore.
Ms. Bergen, making a rare stage appearance, looks a trifle stiff as the long-suffering wife, but she hits her comic marks with crisp efficiency, delivering Alice’s sardonic asides with the same brittle edge she brought to her performance on TV’s “Murphy Brown.” The slight air of discomfort Ms. Bergen radiates certainly suits the character, who shares her husband’s innate distaste for the indecorous business of glad-handing.
As Cantwell’s upstart Southern belle wife Mabel, Kerry Butler looks luscious in Ann Roth’s well-turned costumes, but she pushes her character’s kittenish sexuality and crass cattiness a little too close to caricature. Jefferson Mays makes an effectively sweaty impression as a squirrelly former Army mate of Cantwell’s who is corralled by Russell’s campaign manager into revealing a secret in the senator’s past he hopes to use to neutralize Cantwell’s plan to go public with Russell’s medical history.
But the audience warms most to the veterans onstage. Ms. Lansbury, a welcome presence in many a recent Broadway season, makes every moment of her stage time count as Sue-Ellen Gamadge, a chatty and genial but steely party operative given to dictating to candidates and their wives what the female voter does and does not appreciate. The role is small, but Ms. Lansbury embodies her character with such style that she is as vivid a presence as any when she’s onstage, and manages to nail a sure laugh merely by lowering a newspaper.
The great Mr. Jones is provocatively (if not preposterously) cast as Arthur Hockstader, a former president from the South whose endorsement both candidates hope to win. It is obviously a trifle absurd to suggest that an African-American would have achieved the presidency before the civil rights movement had even gained steam. And since no one else onstage is black, I’m not sure Mr. Jones’s presence can be classified as color-blind casting.
But no matter: this consummate actor digs into his role with a relish you can surely sense from the back row of the balcony. He all but swamps the stage with Hockstader’s hearty bonhomie and zest for the machinations of backroom deal making, but also succeeds in inflecting his character — in the last rounds of a losing battle with cancer — with a moving sense of his mortality.
He also earns robust laughs with some of Mr. Vidal’s piercingly funny lines collapsing the distance between the politics of mid-20th-century America and today. “The world’s changed since I was politickin’,” he observes in a conversation about religion with Russell, after Russell confesses he isn’t a believer. “In those days you had to pour God over everything, like ketchup.” (Apparently the world’s changed back, Arthur.)
But the play more often strikes postures that feel antiquated even in their idealism, as when Russell responds to a question about the importance of polling with a tidy little lecture about the role of government in a properly functioning democracy.
“I don’t believe in polls,” he says. “Accurate or not. And if I may bore you with one of my little sermons: Life is not a popularity contest; neither is politics. The important thing for any government is educating the people about the issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion.”
Modern political junkies and anyone craving a fix of old-time theater thrills should find it hard to resist "Gore Vidal's The Best Man."
The three-act structure of Vidal's 1960 campaign melodrama is a bit creaky. But everything else about this joyfully shrewd star-encrusted revival -- including, for starters, the untouchable James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury, plus a deeply touching Candice Bergen and an astonishing John Larroquette -- feels as pertinent and as boldly impertinent as the daily machinations in our latest mud-fight to the White House.
Do not confuse this with the misdirected revival that the same producer brought to Broadway before the 2000 election. This time, Vidal's witty and eerily up-to-the-minute lesson in civic disillusion has been directed with grand sweep and attention to psychological detail by Michael Wilson. And the cast, well, just lean back and enjoy the fine-point landing of phrases, the sardonic timing, the ways that pros make listening as active an art as showing off.
We are at a convention in Philadelphia in the days when nominees weren't crowned during primaries. It could be either political party. Bunting is swagged around the theater, designed by Derek McLane with banks of '60s TV screens, a TV anchor reporting from one of the boxes and hotel suites on turntables to whisk us to feverish meetings with rival candidates.
In one room is Larroquette, commanding as the womanizing liberal intellectual -- and perhaps too thoughtful -- candidate. In the other suite are the savvy Eric McCormack as his younger, ruthless competition and his equally savvy sex-bomb wife (Kerry Butler).
Jones is both subtle and magnificent as the folksy ex-president, a power broker who works his endorsement like a high-priced tease. Lansbury is irresistibly cunning as the gorgon chair of the women's division who declares "We women like . . ." and "We women don't like . . ." with all the ladylike delivery of a threat.
Bergen is heartbreaking as Larroquette's long-suffering wife, shy but nobody's fool, with Michael McKean as his smart press secretary and Jefferson Mays as the squealer in the mouse-brown suit. (Perfect costumes are by Ann Roth.)
Fifty-two years ago, just before the Kennedy election, Vidal wrote about smears of gays and mental illness, pious hot-potatoes about Darwin and contraceptives, poster wives and image-mongering and screwing around in the White House. Funny how nasty politics still makes gripping theater.
William Russell has a lot to recommend him as a presidential candidate. A former secretary of State, he's smart as a whip, thoughtful and so fair-minded that he objects to slinging mud even at a ruthless opponent poised to tar him with distorted personal information.
Sadly, Russell is also fictional. But you can catch him on the campaign trail in Gore Vidal's The Best Man (* * * out of four), which opened Sunday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
Like the last Broadway revival of Vidal's 1960 account of an unspecified party's heated summer convention, this staging of the play arrives during an election year. If its idealized and obvious aspects are striking, it makes some prescient observations about the increasingly tricky business of choosing a leader of the free world.
The Best Man is less political satire than a combination of punditry and bittersweet fantasy, in which Russell is presented as the commander in chief we don't deserve and could never have, and his challenger, a young senator named Joseph Cantwell, as an abject hypocrite whose rise points to the rot in our system.
For those unfamiliar with Vidal's politics, Russell is a proud liberal and Cantwell a darling of the conservative set — though the latter's many flaws include a readiness to adapt his positions according to the polls. Cantwell is called a "ring-tailed wonder" more than once, and in a climactic confrontation, Russell hisses at him, "You are worse than a liar. You have no sense of right or wrong."
As drama, The Best Man is both soapy and self-righteous; fortunately, director Michael Wilson has assembled a cast of seasoned pros who manage a winningly dry, light touch. John Larroquette brings a mix of gravitas and ruefulness to Russell, whose only apparent shortcoming is trouble remaining faithful to his wife.
The wry, elegant Candice Bergen is perfectly cast as Alice Russell, who remains loyal and classy despite her distaste for the indignities of public life and her beloved husband's foibles. Michael McKean offers a delightfully crisp, witty take on William's harried campaign manager.
Eric McCormack makes Cantwell a convincingly cool scoundrel, resisting the temptation to turn him into a cartoon character. Kerry Butler is more flamboyant as his crassly conniving wife, though it's fun to see the actress — a veteran of feisty ingénue roles — test out her claws, as well as a saccharine-laced Southern accent.
Angela Lansbury, a joy to behold whenever she's on stage, has relatively little time as the chairman of the party's women's division but delivers her lines with a seen-it-all piquance that's worth the price of admission.
But the biggest, warmest laughs are provided by another venerable octogenarian: James Earl Jones, who clearly has a field day as jocular former president Artie Hockstader. Though a fundamentally decent fellow, Hockstader has no problem enjoying some of the tawdrier elements of the political game as a spectator.
Thanks to the sterling company here, neither will you.
This is an election year, so let "Gore Vidal's The Best Man" win for dirtiest political convention in half a century. The fiercely fought 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign was Gore Vidal's inspiration for this vituperative drama about the wheeling and dealing and stealing driving the national convention of an unnamed political party. Far from being dated, this profoundly cynical play could be the universal blueprint for any political election, especially in Michael Wilson's classy production toplined by James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Eric McCormack, Angela Lansbury and other thesps to die for.
The savvy production designers have transformed the theater auditorium into an approximation of a convention hall in Philadelphia by hanging flag bunting from the balcony, installing TV newscasters and their clunky equipment in the boxes, and piping in the canned roars of the thousand or more delegates on the floor. (Kudos to John Gromada for that.)
The tension is more contained, but no less fierce on Derek McLane's set, where the action ping-pongs between the generic hotel suites of former Secretary of State William Russell (John Larroquette) and Sen. Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack), the frontrunners to carry their party's banner in the fall election.
Larroquette, a Tony winner for his droll musical turn in last year's "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," displays the same understated wit here. Russell is the very model of the idealistic patrician politician -- well born, well educated, deeply thoughtful and fatally honest. Vidal supposedly based this noble character on poor, doomed Adlai Stevenson, but feel free to think of John Kerry or George McGovern, or even John Adams.
Cantwell, an attractive devil in McCormack's tooth-and-nail perf, is Russell's mirror image, a phoney populist, ruthlessly ambitious and totally without scruple. Given today's political climate, Vidal's Nixonian model is not the only person who comes to mind here.
The well-built plot places both candidates in hot competition for the endorsement of former President Arthur "Artie" Hockstader (James Earl Jones). An old-fashioned statesman from the give-'em-hell tradition of Harry Truman, this folksy old fox is delighted when Cantwell threatens to go public about Russell's nervous breakdown and when Russell gives serious thought to flinging some mud back at Cantwell.
"I feel wonderful!" says Hockstader, who is old and sick (dying, actually, of "cancer of the innards") but energized by these cheap tactics: "I tell you," he says, "there is nothing like a dirty low-down political fight to put the roses in your cheeks."
Jones played it nice and sweet in last year's "Driving Miss Daisy," but this role gives him a chance to stomp around and roar. And what a grand sight it is when this powerful thesp flashes that meat-eating grin and bites into Vidal's juicy lines about the bloody game of politics. "Power is not a toy we give to good children," he thunders. "It is a weapon; and the strong man takes it and he uses it." And whoever is too pure to use that power, he makes it clear, "got no business in this big league."
If anyone's having as much fun up there as Jones, it might be Lansbury, all fluffed up in Ann Roth's confectionary costumes and playing Sue-Ellen Gamadge, a Southern power broker who wields the women's vote like a hatchet over the heads of both candidates.
Nobody can deliver a veiled threat quite like Lansbury, with her sweet-talking promises and utterly lethal smiles. Her scenes with the candidates' anxious wives are sheer heaven. Candice Bergen is appropriately refined and just a little bit saucy as the womanizing Russell's sadly neglected wife, and Kerry Butler tears into her killer role as Cantwell's Lady Macbeth of a wife. But when Lansbury lectures them on what women like and don't like in a First Lady, we know who's boss here.
Vidal stuffed his cast with office holders, party brokers, up-and-coming players and collective party hacks, along with the press whores hounding them all. Some of them, like Dakin Matthews as a party faithful who loses faith with his candidate, hold their own in the ensemble. And some of them get lost. But for a cast of thousands, everyone plays pretty well together.