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Paulanne Simmons

Gore Vidal’s Best Man - When Winning Isn’t Everything

GORE VIDAL'S THE BEST MAN -- Sherman Howard, Candice Bergen, John Larroquette, Donna Hanover, James Lecesne, Fred Parker, Amy Tribbey. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man
Directed by Michael Wilson
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45 Street
Opened April 1, 2012
Tues. thru Sat. at 8pm, matinees Tues. & Sat. at 2pm, Sun. at 3pm
Tickets: $66.50 - $131.50
Closes July 8, 2012
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons April 12, 2012

Reportedly, when Ronald Reagan auditioned for the lead in the 1960 production of “The Best Man,” he did not get the part because the playwright did not believe he would be credible as president. Be that as it may, in the current production, John Larroquette is extremely credible as William Russell, an ethical man whose private life does not match his principles. And so are all the other actors in their various roles.

This is a star-studded production which has the incomparable Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, the wise and feisty chairman of the Women’s Division; James Earl Jones as the pragmatic former President Arthur “Artie” Hockstader; John Larroquette as the conflicted candidate, William Russell; and Candice Bergen as Russell’s long-suffering but loyal wife, Alice.

If Russell is too scrupulous to succeed in a bloody campaign, his main opponent, Joseph Cantwell (the excellent Eric McCormack) has all the qualities Russell is missing, unbridled ambition, ruthlessness and an underdeveloped sense of justice and honesty. Unlike Russell, he is even faithful to his sexy and malicious wife, Mabel (Kerry Butler, in a funny but somewhat outlandish performance).

At first the two men are merely competing for Hockstader’s endorsement, but it soon becomes obvious the contest is really about which man will sink lower in order to secure his party’s nomination. Think dangerous revelations on sexual orientation and mental stability.

The play is dated by its many references to bygone issues: recognition of Red China, the status of Taiwan, tricky Dick Nixon. Even more significant, it takes place at a time when conventions were still horse races ending up with a candidate selected through back-room deals. But the basic premise that politics is a dirty business and politicians are not to be trusted still applies.

Michael Wilson’s direction is deft and aided by Derek McLane’s simply wonderful set, which turns the entire house into a convention floor. TV monitors on both sides of the stage, and red, white and blue bunting, combined with the sounds of raucous conventioneers, will give many in the audience a taste of an experience they will most likely never actually have.

But it is the tremendous acting talent on stage at the Schoenfeld Theatre, together with Vidal’s wit and perception that make this play so enjoyable. Who could resist Lansbury wielding her cane as she genially advises the candidate on the women’s vote? And Bergen turns a discarded woman who could be pitiful into someone who is worthy of respect.

Jones as a rascal with scruples making his last stand before death takes him out of the running is both funny and heart-wrenching. He even manages to make the audience forget that an African-American president would not be possible when Jim Crow still reigned in many parts of the South.

At at time when this nation will soon be neck-deep in what augurs to be one of the dirtiest campaigns of the 20th and 21st century, “The Best Man” is a timely reminder of how easy it is to manipulate public opinion and how citizens in a democracy must be forever vigilant.

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