The interior of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway is decorated to the nines with bunting, campaign photos; hoopla music is playing over the speakers; the management wants you to know from the get go that you will be attending the July 1960 Presidential convention in Philadelphia, and will be having a look at all the shenanigans that precede it.Two aspirants for a crack at the U.S. Presidency, Secretary of State William Russell (John Larroguette) and Senator Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack) with their wives in tow, will be the primary participants in the contest to select a candidate strong enough to replace the incumbent Arthur Hockstader (James Earl Jones).
The wives are Alice (Candice Bergen) and Mabel (Kerry Butler) and they will be spending some time courting Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge (Angela Lansbury) representing the women voters of the party. Assorted senators, doctors, informers, newsmen and commentators round out the large cast.
There are many signs that this is a vintage piece: it’s in three acts, there are two intermissions, it is loaded with plot twists and turns, the kind of play so popular in the Golden Age with what was then called ‘the carriage trade’, who in turn favored it with good word of mouth which allowed it to attract the larger group of theatre goers.
When it premiered in 1960, The Playwrights Company eased the way by sprinkling the cast with box office names other than Mr. Vidal’s. Film star Melvin Douglas, old time stage favorite Lee Tracy, top notch Broadway names like Frank Lovejoy, Leora Dana and Ruth McDevitt gave the piece pre-opening prestige, and with mostly favorable press, this original production was a big winner, playing some 570 performances. A film followed, and there was a modestly successful revival in 2000.
Now here come lead producers Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel (who seem to be producing every other play on the Main Stem this season) to go both previous productions one better by filling the cast with eight big names to bring it back once again in this 2012 campaign year, and I’m certain it will be as hard to resist as it’s been in the past.
James Earl Jones as President Hockstader, Candice Bergen and John Larroquette as one candidate and wife, Eric McCormack and Kerry Butler as the other, with Angela Lansbury lending star presence to two juicy scenes, with Jefferson Mays (so impressive in I Am My Own Wife and Journey’s End) bringing his unique ways to the stage as a surprise witness who can upset the apple cart for nominee Cantwell .
For the less experienced political observer (me), Vidal has supplied tons of information about the goings on behind the scenes of all campaign trails, and most of the specifics of the two in this play could easily be applied to any other. Some of those specifics are a bit convenient and require us to stretch our imaginations, but they do keep the plot boiling and the laughs coming. Vidal is crafty and informed, and he writes intelligent, ambitious and conniving people well; it’s clear whose side he’s on, but he does give the other guy a chance to state his case and I won’t tell you how it all turns out, but I think you’ll agree it does so with some surprises.
Mr. Jones and Ms. Lansbury, old hands at stealing scenes, both manage to emerge from this 2 1/2 hour bubbling cauldron as the most colorful characters of the bunch. Eric McCormack is stolid, but not very interesting — but then think of John Edwards, whom he physically resembles. Kerry Butler (Catch Me If You Can) plays his wife Mabel as though she were in Up In Mabel’s Room; she’s all bubble and bounce, but in no way could her Mabel ever be a First Lady, and her husband Joseph is too canny a politician not to know that. Jefferson Mays finds interesting ways to play the spineless Sheldon Marcus, the man who could spill the beans and spoil Cantwell’s plans; it’s always fun to watch Mr. Mays come up with something new and original, as he’s done so far each time out. Candice Bergen, maturing nicely, has great warmth and dignity as Larroquette’s deposed wife. The supporting cast is fine; and under Michael Wilson’s direction (he was responsible for staging Horton Foote’s Orphans’ Home Circle) the whole enterprise smacks of Broadway at its best.
The play is a little creaky, but it’s right on in terms of relevance. It’s a mixture of good ingredients adding up to a most nourishing meal.
The Best Man has a limited run thru July 8, 2012 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St, NYC.
Details and tickets.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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