Gore Vidal’s The Best Man
Returning to director Michael Wilson’s immensely strong, nattily-appointed revival of
Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, now at Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre through September 9, in order to assess the several cast replacements has the effect of lending the play’s title a double meaning.
The question is whether cast newbies John Stamos, Cybill Shepherd, Kristin Davis, and Elizabeth Ashley are the best men and women for the job? The answer is they absolutely equal, if not better, their predecessors.
The smart-as-a-whip script concerns an open presidential campaign convention in 1960 where eastern liberal William Russell (John Larroquette continuing in the flashy part), a man of great conscience, is squaring off with southern neo-conservative senator Joe Cantwell (Stamos), a man of no conscience whatsoever.
Stamos brings an array of tough expressions and inflexible stances to his manipulating White House hopeful, while Davis — making an impressive Broadway debut after being recognized primarily as the cheerfully naïve Charlotte York of Sex and the City — proves she has unexpected range as Mabel Cantwell, the sex kitten with a sly tongue whom her conniving hubby repeatedly calls “Mama Bear” to his gooey “Papa Bear.”
As Russell’s wife, Alice, a woman who has endured her husband’s well-known philandering with a certain amount of poise, Shepherd has that poise down pat, and then some. She shows off the straight-backed resolve and the enigmatic smiles that have become second-nature to a politician’s adroit wife.
It’s less surprising that Elizabeth Ashley knows exactly what flowery notes to hit as Sue-Ellen Gamage, the shrewdly effervescent head of the unnamed party’s women’s division. Ashley appeared in the show’s 2000 Broadway revival and is repeating the clever characterization she unfurled then.
Another semi-newcomer is Mark Blum, who’s been portraying Russell’s campaign manager Dick Jensen since replacing the injured Michael McKean earlier this summer. The part calls for a man primed to keep his candidate within the limits of politically safe statements, and Blum easily conveys all the frustrations of that futile assignment.
Of course, one of the revival’s chief — and — continuing attractions is James Earl Jones as former president Arthur “Artie” Hockstader, whose endorsement both Russell and Cantwell are jockeying to obtain. Watching Jones and Larroquette spar is a lesson in how two expert performers have managed to enrich their work as they continue a run.
They’re particularly overwhelming in an extended first-act one-on-one where Russell realizes the wily Hockstader, while admiring his one-time secretary of state, is planning to endorse the below-the-belt-fighting Cantwell. The odds are there’s no better sequence currently unfolding on Broadway.
When this Best Man bowed in March, there was some comment tossed around that the play is dated. That is only true insofar as the fact that open conventions remain, at best, a slight possibilty in the 21st Century. In a deeper way, however, candidates who say whatever they need to say to get elected and references to an electorate that fears intelligence more than stupidity are as current as tomorrow’s sunrise and render Vidal (who passed away on July 29) eternally vital.