by Kirk Woodward
[The current Broadway revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man began preview performances at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on 6 March 2012 and opened to the press on 1 April. It’s been extended once and is now scheduled to close its limited run on 9 September. It was nominated for a Tony as Best Revival of a Play (and James Earl Jones was also nominated for best actor in a play); the production also received several Drama Desk nominations. The original production ran at the Morosco Theatre from 31 March 1960 to 8 July 1961. It starred Melvyn Douglas, who won a Tony for his performance as William Russell, the challenger to the former president.
[On Thursday, 21 June, frequent ROT contributor Kirk Woodward attended a performance of the revival and filed the following report. As you’ll see, he recommends it—I’ll let him tell you why exactly—but he has more to say that I’m sure ROT readers and theater enthusiasts will find informative. ~Rick]
It's a commonplace of directing classes that ninety percent of good directing is a good cast. The other ten percent is a good script. Or maybe it's the good script that's ninety percent of directing, and a good cast ten percent. I'm pretty sure the script is the ninety percent. Or maybe not.
In any case, the current Broadway production of Gore Vidal's 1960 Broadway play The Best Man should make its director, Michael Wilson, happy, because it's a strong play with a remarkable original cast: James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormick, John Laroquette, and that's only the front line of actors in this twenty-performer show. (Bergen, McCormack, Butler, and Lansbury were to be replaced by Cybill Shepherd, John Stamos, Kristin Davis and Elizabeth Ashley, respectively, over the course of July.)
It was the cast list – particularly the opportunity to see Angela Lansbury on stage again – that made me pay attention to this revival in the first place. I had more or less overlooked the opening of the play altogether. I'm not sure why. Reviews of the play were mixed but generally positive, particularly for the cast. (Charles Isherwood of the New York Times called the production “sluggish” and the play “quaint.” What Isherwood found dated, Linda Winer in Newsday on the other hand found “pertinent and as boldly impertinent as the daily machinations in our latest mud-fight to the White House.”)
Perhaps I didn't pay attention to the play because it's a limited run. It was originally scheduled to close on July 1; that date has now been moved out to September 9. I recommend that you take advantage of the extension to see the play if you haven’t. It's worth it.
One reason I say this is that, as I hinted above, playwriting, affected by economic considerations like everything else, has frequently constricted its vision to make plays more financially viable for producing organizations. No doubt producers still look for promising properties of all sorts, but the idea of a two-act, two character play on a bare stage probably would not depress them, and today's playwright who submits a new script that requires twenty actors is a brave soul.
The Best Man by contrast is a three act play with at least two major sets, both realistic, and we probably ought to take advantage of opportunities to see plays like this, since for a number of decades they were standard for the American theater. (Think, for example, of the plays of Kaufman and Hart.) There is something to be said for a show with a lot of actors on stage, doing a lot of acting.
But Vidal's play is not routine American theatrical fare, any more than Vidal (whose other Broadway success is Visit to a Small Planet) is a routine American writer. His acerbic voice has been prominent in novels and essays, not to mention television appearances, for years. However, The Best Man, although a jibe at American political life, is not a cheap shot. What's more, Isherwood’s review notwithstanding, politics is not all that the play is about.
A brief summary: the play takes place at the 1960 presidential nominating convention of an unnamed political party, and focuses on two of the three leading candidates for nomination, William Russell (played by John Larroquette) and Joseph Cantwell (significantly named, and played by Eric McCormack). (The third candidate is a nonentity and is hardly mentioned.)
Russell, formerly a governor and Secretary of State, resembles Adlai Stevenson (who is mentioned in the play) a bit in the sense that he wants to maintain as much integrity as it is possible to maintain in politics.
Cantwell, on the other hand, is presented from the start as the worst sort of opportunistic American politician, a man without conviction who talks constantly about his convictions, a man without love for anything except himself who presents himself as full of love for his country, a man with a justification for everything while he is doing the most irresponsible things. (If that portrait reminds you of anyone today, well, I didn't say it.)
In the play we see the efforts of the two candidates to gain the endorsement of a former president (James Earl Jones) and a prominent Southern committeewoman (Angela Lansbury). We also see Cantwell attempt a deadly maneuver in an attempt to force Russell to quit the race.
Obviously the subject at hand in The Best Man is political power, and Vidal has plenty to say on the subject. He points to the evil behavior we see in the play – of a kind by no means unthinkable in any election. Just as important, however, is Vidal's contention that there are no perfect, or even reasonably perfect, candidates. The search for such a candidate, he suggests, is a huge mistake. Looking for an ideal president can only lead to picking a bad one. We need to select the lesser of evils for President, he says, because there is no other choice. "The best man" is a relative, not an absolute, term.
Presenting this view of politics in itself would be a public service. However, Vidal is after bigger game than just a shot at the American political system. The Best Man at its heart is a presentation of the famous existential dilemma most familiarly stated by Camus: If there is no God – and the play rules God out of the discussion early – then why bother to be good?
The play presents several possible answers to this question, but mostly batted away by the powerful personality who is former President Arthur Hockstader. It's all about power, Hockstader says, and you have to exercise it, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer. The existential answer is that a person has to choose. Existentially speaking, there is no other answer.
When I refer to the character of President Hockstader as powerful, I’m clearly being influenced by the performance of the redoubtable James Earl Jones in the role. His Hockstader is boisterous, profane, earthy, unpredictable, a force to reckon with. How much of this description is due to Vidal's script and how much to Jones' performance I can't say, not having read the script, but there's no question that this wonderful actor makes the most of everything in the role and then some.
For example, I can imagine his remark that his image didn't join the others on Mt. Rushmore might be delivered in a semi-apologetic, rueful fashion. Jones delivers the line with a substantial pause, followed by a virtual explosion of the remark indicating, among other things, glee that he knows perfectly well what his own strengths and weaknesses are. Appropriately, Jones had been nominated this year for a Tony Award for his performance.
But all the performers in this play bring much more than just reputations to the role. Larouquette fills his character with a deep, almost guilty, awareness of his own shortcomings. McCormick, who has proven to be an extremely able stage actor, makes Cantwell into an almost irresistible snake, practically the original Tempter. Candice Bergen, often given stern, snippy roles, plays a woman who wishes she were anyplace except where politics has put her. And Angela Lansbury, now eighty-six years old, acts with the energy of a much younger person, and with a vocal technique to be envied – from my seat in the rear balcony, she sounded almost as though she were up there with us.
A play like The Best Man has room for numerous fine smaller roles. I was amazed to see the small role of a senator played by the always welcome Dakin Matthews, a familiar face on TV and the stage. Donna Hanover, the TV personality and former wife of Rudy Giuliani, appears, and so do the talented and stalwart Kerry Butler, Jefferson Mays, and Mark Blum. I counted something like a dozen Tony awards and nominations among the cast, and goodness knows how many Oscars and Emmys.
So the director, Michael Wilson, does pretty well in that ninety-percent, ten-percent idea I alluded to at the beginning of this piece. Wilson also has the successful Broadway director’s gift of leading the cast to get the most out of their lines, often with unexpected readings that in particular bring out the humor of the piece. I saw only one flaw in the direction of the show, and it may not be his fault: the cast begins to play the ending of the show too early. This fault may result not from direction, though, but from the way the actors have played the show as the run has progressed. Slowing down at the end of the play is a frequent temptation for a cast.
If only for the performance of James Earl Jones, The Best Man would be a show to see. But it offers much, much more.
[I feel I have to acknowledge something here while publishing Kirk’s first article for ROT since “Noel, Noel” on 24 March. On Monday, 2 April, Pat Woodward, Kirk’s dear wife of 28 years, died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 62. I’ve been trying to find a way to address Pat’s passing on ROT for months now, and I really haven’t found one that satisfies me. So I’m just going to acknowledge it here. However late it may be, I expect there will be a more substantial remembrance of this devoted theater person and special woman on ROT in the near future, but for now, “Good night, sweet Pat, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” ~Rick]