The Best Man and Its Stellar Cast

With a name like The Best Man, one might expect a wedding-themed romantic comedy, but the Broadway revival of Gore Vidal's 1960 play is instead a political drama that still remains timely over a half century later. The new production has a star-studded cast that elevates the production to even greater heights. It's being hyped as one of the finest Broadway casts ever assembled and it is hard to argue with that when the names include James Earle Jones, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack, Kerry Butler, Jefferson Mays, Michael McKean, and Angela Lansbury.

Audience members quickly get into the mood of the story about two candidates battling for their party's Presidential nomination at the 1960 Philadelphia National Convention. The lobby of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater is dressed in patriotic bunting and the ushers are wearing red-white-and-blue straw hats and campaign buttons. Old black-and-white television monitors in the corners and the sounds of news broadcasts and jubilant crowds set the tone for the early 1960s era, yet as the tale unfolds we quickly see the parallels to our own present political climate. Either writer Gore Vidal was extremely prescient in his vision, or it's the example of "the more things change the more they stay the same."

John Larroquette is a strong former Secretary of State, William Russell, the front runner who tries to stand by his principles as he faces the dark side of politics. His foe is the charming but cutthroat Senator Joseph Cantwell, played exceptionally well by Eric McCormack. Both have their sympathetic moments and both have their human flaws. It's wonderful watching them spar.

The most inspired bit of casting is James Earl Jones as former President Arthur Hockstader, who even at the twilight of his life, long past his political prime, still commands any room he enters. He is a down-to-earth populist and an idealistic statesman, completely believable as a popular ex-President. Watching Jones bring all the facets of Hockstader's personality to life -- his nobility, his humor, his conviction, his frailty -- was one of the highlights.

Angela Lansbury is still a marvel. As Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, chairperson of the party's Women's Division, her theatrical instincts were in top form every second she was on stage. Kerry Butler was stunning as Senator Cantwell's wife Mabel, smarter and shrewder than her ditzy sexpot appearance would have us believe. Michael McKean continues to be one of my favorite actors, doing a marvelous job as Russell's no-nonsense campaign manager Dick Jensen. Jefferson Mays was fantastic as Sheldon Marcus, who served in the military with Cantwell and now has some secrets to spill.

Even the supporting cast in smaller roles were outstanding, such as Donna Hanover in the dual role of reporter Barbara Brinkley and Mrs. Cantwell's mother. I especially enjoyed watching the excellent Dakin Matthews as Senator Clyde Carlin.

The weakest character was Russell's wife Alice, through no fault of the marvelous actress Candice Bergen who gives a commendable effort portraying her. The problem is that Gore Vidal sets her up brilliantly at the beginning of the story but then doesn't do much with her the rest of the way, which is a shame, because the dynamic relationship between her and Senator Russell teases us for great things to come which never really materialize with her. Instead, as with real life politicians' wives, she ends up often being used by Vidal just as a convenient storytelling prop. We sadly don't learn much about her -- or, more accurately, we don't learn as much as I would have liked, which is a disappointment.

I learned some interesting trivia as I researched the history of The Best Man. When President John F. Kennedy saw it, he told Mr. Vidal that "''You know, in a campaign we don't have all that much time to talk about the meaning of it all.'' I also learned that Ronald Reagan auditioned for the original Broadway production, but Vidal ironically didn't consider him to be "presidential" enough.

Did you know there was a movie based on The Best Man? No, not the 1999 Taye Diggs comedy. I'm talking about the 1964 adaptation starring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. Hunt it down and enjoy.

If you really want to be entertained, go see the Broadway revival. It's full of drama, loaded with laughs, and brimming with interesting ideas and surprises. When will you have another chance to see a live performance by such an amazing cast?

Comments