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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE BEST MAN
at the Schoenfeld

MORAL PLATITUDES
By JOANNE KAUFMAN

  Eric McCormack and James Earl Jones/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Angela Lansbury for president! Whatever the failings of the revival of Gore Vidal’s 1960 morality play – supposedly it was written to help ensure John F. Kennedy’s election – Lansbury should get all the votes at Tony time. Throw in a medal of honor, too.

The Best Man was last on Broadway in 2000. The decision to stage this revival in yet another election year seems rather less artistic than opportunistic. But one can't argue with the strategy of the creative team. There are enough stars – Lansbury, James Earl Jones, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack from TV’s Will and Grace, John Larroquette of Night Court fame—for a quorum.

It’s the eve of the national convention. The mood is set with a TV displaying black and white images. Ushers wear straw boaters trimmed in red, white and blue. Two candidates from an unspecified party are vying for the presidential nomination. In this corner, the front runner William Russell (Larroquette), a Harvard-educated former governor and former secretary of state who can quote Oliver Cromwell and Bertrand Russell at the drop of a hat, though he’s warned by his campaign manager Dick (the very good Michael McKean) to lay off. And especially to lay off mention of Charles Darwin (everything old is new again). Russell also has a dowdy estranged wife (Bergen), and what today would be called a bimbo problem.

In the other corner we have Senator Joseph Cantwell, who is as pragmatic and crude as Russell is idealistic and patrician, and who has the ability, as one character observes, to “state the obvious with a real sense of discovery.” Cantwell has an explosive story about his rival he intends to detonate at the convention. Russell finds some ammo of his own about Cantwell. Will he use it? Such is the play’s concern.

There are bits of dialogue that snap and crackle, and some observations that have aged wonderfully – and dishearteningly – well. “You had to pour God over everything like ketchup,” observes Jones, a former Trumanesque president who’s cagily trying to decide who’s going to get his endorsement. But the play is best viewed as an opportunity to recall the good old days when conventions actually offered some surprises. 

Russell and Cantwell aren’t so much characters as Vidal’s mouthpieces. Larroquette and McCormack do what they can to put flesh on them. Jones is wonderful as a dyed in the wool (political) party animal. “I tell you there is nothing like a low-down political fight to put the roses in your cheeks," he exclaims. Then there’s Lansbury in the small role of Sue-Ellen Gamdage, a tough-minded operative who gives advice to the candidates (if they’re smart they’ll take it) about what the ladies do and don’t like. The ladies, for example, like Russell’s wife, as Sue-Ellen explains, because “she doesn’t make them feel jealous.” Lansbury and Jones give The Best Man its vitality. The play may show its age. Those two? Not a chance.

 


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