What does it take to become President of the United States? What compromises should be made, what promises must be kept, and ultimately, what values have to be sacrificed? And what does it take to give that up?
The show that appears in theater listings as Gore Vidal’s The Best Man is based on the author’s bestselling book, and there is no doubt that it is biased on the liberal side of the political spectrum. Vidal was actively involved in supporting John F. Kennedy for President; he referred to Jacqueline Kennedy as his “sister,” due to the fact that both of their mothers had been married to the socially prominent Newport millionaire, Hugh D. Auchincloss.
The setting is the Presidential Convention in Philadelphia; the year is 1960. Top contenders for the nomination are aristocratic William Russell (John Larroquette), former Secretary of State; and “man of the people,” Senator Joe Cantwell (Eric McCormack). They both seek the endorsement of former President “Artie” Hockstader (James Earl Jones).
Russell is the White Knight, the guy who doesn’t compromise his principles, who won’t stoop to smearing his opponent. The problem with the play is that he’s also pretty insufferable; the fact that he’s destroyed his marriage with compulsive philandering is shrugged off. In addition, it appears that the most vulnerable he’s ever gotten was the “nervous breakdown” that Cantwell intends to use against him. He’s cold as ice to his loyal wife, Alice (Candice Bergen), and even though we’re constantly told how funny he is, his humor often falls flat. In no way is this the fault of Emmy Award winner Larroquette; neither is his pronounced height. But director Michael Wilson should be aware of what has come to be known in TV as “The Gunsmoke Rule.” Producers quickly learned that Dillon should never be shown in a fight with a shorter man, because he came across as a bully. Since there were few actors who could match Arness for height, Marshall Dillon usually squared off against a group.
When Larroquette faces down McCormack, our sympathies naturally tend toward Cantwell, who seems to be clearly at a disadvantage. Add to this the fact that McCormack—also an Emmy Award winner—is far better looking, at least as persuasive, and just a lot more likable, and the balance is tipped away from Russell. We feel drawn to Joe Cantwell, who is so obviously intended to be the villain of the piece. We’re told that he changes his position according to the group he’s addressing (Hello, Saturday Night Live), that he’s previously made accusations he knows to be false, and that he’ll do absolutely anything to win the nomination. Sadly, in this day and age, our reaction is “and your point would be…?”
This tug of war becomes nearly insignificant every time James Earl Jones comes onstage. He turns what is at first a sight gag (the President is black, get it?) into a tour de force. As the admitted “Last Hayseed President,” he good ol’ boys the room, while doing his damnedest to keep everyone in line, and to play his winning hand to the max. Is he for Russell, Cantwell, or neither one of them? They will dance to his tune, and the audience can’t get enough of him.
The same can be said of Angela Lansbury, another performer who turns every stage appearance into a love fest. As Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, Chairman of the Women’s Division, she handily steals every scene in which she appears. Her entrance in a coral suit, little white hat, pearls, and the requisite lapel pin is picture perfect; her Southern accent drips both honey and venom.
The other women onstage come across very well, too. Candice Bergen is coolly patrician as Alice Russell. Kudos to costume designer Ann Roth, who has dressed her ladies perfectly; Bergen’s beige Chanel suit is exactly right. So is her moonlight hair, worn longish and curled under, held by a simple barrette. Why lovely Alice Russell stands by her cheating dog of a man is beyond me, but then, we’ve seen that before in modern politics, haven’t we?
Kerry Butler is Kewpie Doll adorable as Joe’s wife, Mabel Cantwell. A loud, bosomy blonde, with a scorpion’s sting and an over developed taste for martinis, she is every bit the Southern Belle driven to extremes by ambition and self-doubt.
In fact, most of the characters are cardboard cutouts of real people, but we can excuse that, because the actors are so good. However, I would like to give a good swift kick in the stereotype to Vidal and Wilson for making the one character with an obviously Jewish name, Sheldon Marcus, into a bumbling clown of a man. Jefferson Mays does all an actor could to bring some humanity to this sweating, red faced, balding wannabe whistle-blower, but there’s no way to overcome the fact that he’s nothing more than a sniveling coward, intent on his own agenda.
Of course, this is a timely play. For the most part, it could be set in present day. Theater lovers should certainly take advantage of the opportunity to see this stellar cast. But for real high drama, blatant self-interest, and every possible mean spirited volley, voters, just stay tuned. We have over half a year until the presidential election, and God help us, it’s only going to get dirtier.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Gore Vidal’s The Best Man
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th Street
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.