Thursday, April 26, 2012

Gore Vidal's The Best Man ****

(Please click on the title to see the full review.)
Ah,  for the good old days before focus groups, 24-hour cable bloviators, nonstop polls and super-PACS. You can escape there for a few hours at the Schoenfeld Theatre, where this star-packed revival of Vidal's 1960 drama is playing. The theater is decorated with patriotic bunting, state delegation signs and black-and-white tv monitors and the sound design by John Gromada recreates the background noise of a lively convention. William Russell (John Larroquette), a principled, patrician, intellectual, womanizing, liberal candidate is competing with Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack), a younger, telegenic, unscrupulous, ambitious, straight-laced, populist conservative, for the endorsement of former president Arthur Hockstader (James Earl Jones). Cantwell is prepared to sabotage Russell's campaign by releasing a report on a nervous breakdown in his past. Dick Jensen (Michael McKean), Russell's campaign manager, turns up a witness, Sheldon Marcus (Jefferson Mays), to a potentially damaging episode in Cantwell's past. Russell must decide whether to violate his own principles by using this information to neutralize Cantwell's attack. Russell's estranged wife Alice (Candace Bergen), Cantwell's relentlessly ambitious southern belle wife Mabel (Kerry Butler) and Sue-Ellen Gamadge (Angela Lansbury), chair of the party's women's division, fulfill the traditional roles expected of the distaff side. The action progresses through three well-formed acts to a satisfying conclusion. The play is far less dated than I expected it to be. In a sense, only the forms have changed; politics is basically the same. It's a treat to see actors the caliber of Jones and Lansbury chew up the scenery. Larroquette is more effective than McCormack, although the latter improves as the play progresses. Bergen is to be commended for taking on an unglamorous role and playing it well. Butler and Mays are a bit over the top, in Mays' case delightfully so. Even the minor roles are well-cast. Derek McLane's sets, Ann Roth's costumes and Michael Wilson's direction are all admirable. All in all, it was an enjoyable evening. Running time: two hours, 40 minutes including two intermissions.

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