Saturday, September 15, 2012

Theater Review: Gore Vidal’s ‘The Best Man’

Over the Labor Day weekend, contemplating which New York play I’d attend for a Saturday matinee, the gravitational pull of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man proved irresistible. There were the national conventions (the GOP over, the Dems about to occur), the backdrop of the action; an all-star cast; the urge to see how well Vidal’s play, first staged on Broadway in 1960, would hold up; and the desire to assess this, one of the playwright’s seminal works, as part of his entire corpus.

In keeping with Vidal’s overall worldview, the show—which closed this past Sunday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, after 185 performances--reflects a cold, aristocratic disdain of the American electorate. Yet it exhibits as close to a beating heart as we will find in the work of this lifelong professional skeptic. And, as one might expect, it remains entertaining and provocative more than a half century after its premiere, still packed with insights into the gamy clutching for ultimate power.

With a few exceptions (which I’ll get to shortly), director Michael Wilson not only has not updated the production, but frankly marinates it in period detail. TV monitors placed on each side of the stage evoke the black-and-white images viewers would have seen years ago, reflecting, in a sense, one of Vidal’s preoccupations here—the way that the surface, black-and-white reality of the candidates is at odds with a grayer, morally murkier world in which they work, struggle—and plot. The surnames of reporters (Annenberg, Pearson, Brinkley and Graham) summon up the boldface celebrities of 1960 whose celebrity may have slightly dimmed in the past century.

In many ways, conventions are no longer the dramas they once were. For all practical purposes, the nomination has been decided well before the end of the primaries, and even the Vice-Presidential selection is being announced lately well before candidates appear before the delegates and the TV coverage. That’s why election dramas such as Primary Colors and The Ides of March are set these days in primaries.

But Vidal’s comedy-drama remains a winner. Issues may change, technology may change, but human nature—at its worst in the hideous lust for power—endures.

It helps that Vidal longed to participate in this world, but never managed to do so. The grandson of a U.S. senator from Oklahoma, he ran to represent an upstate New York seat in Congress in 1960, then for governor of California in 1982. Both attempts were unsuccessful. He came closest to fulfilling his ambition when he played a senator in Tim Robbins’ 1992 film, Bob Roberts. In short: he knew enough about politicians to write about it their machinations with insights, but was forced, by necessity, to maintain distance from it all.

Remarkably, Wilson managed to keep the show sharply focused on Vidal’s vision with a cast nearly half of which was different from the one that opened on April 1. When Michael McKean was injured, Mark Blum was forced to assume the role of campaign manager for one of the candidates. By the time I saw the show, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack, Kerry Butler and Angela Lansbury had been replaced by, respectively, Cybill Shepherd, John Stamos, Kristin Davis and Elizabeth Ashley. If there were any bumpy spots with the new actors, however, it was impossible to tell.

The three major roles in The Best Man would have been instantly recognizable to most Americans in 1960. William Russell, an erudite, witty, liberal candidate with a reputation for weakness, reminded many of Adlai Stevenson. Joe Cantwell, the 40ish redbaiting senator who sneers about the “Groton Harvard Wall Street set,” was (mostly) modeled after Richard Nixon, with elements of Joseph McCarthy thrown in. Art Hockstader, the profanely funny former President who relishes every minute of the game of politics, was Vidal’s spin on Harry S. Truman (with the playwright grafting his religious skepticism onto the Baptist President).

The role of Hockstader is rather like Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Even when absent, his shadow falls across every scene. The two candidates not only seek his endorsement as a means of breaking the convention deadlock, but the characterization is so salty and multi-dimensional that the audience craves his reappearance. Since Vidal gave this role most of the best lines, the producers needed an actor with the heft of James Earl Jones. So they got Jones. It is a role similar to his appearance as Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: a larger-than-life powerful figure unable to fight off mortality. Some might argue, in a production that harks back in so many ways to 1960, that it is anachronistic to have an African-American play a President at a time when this country denied blacks their elemental civil rights. But the color-blind casting works here, triumphantly.

The other major updating of the play involves the interpretation of the Cantwell role. Perhaps in an attempt to make it more immediate, John Stamos (a mid-run replacement for Eric McCormack) effects a cocky walk and Texas drawl that will inevitably bring to mind George W. Bush. Yet the character ends up sounding simply stupid, rather than anti-intellectual but cunning, as Vidal wrote it. (Even the character’s surname—cant-well—suggests a master of deceit.)

When Franklin Schaffner directed the film adaptation in 1964, casting Henry Fonda guaranteed that the Russell role would be seen as overwhelmingly noble, not much more. John Larroquette’s interpretation in this production gives the character an off-center vibe, especially when he does a superstitious stepping-game around his hotel room—enough to suggest both his ironic distance from the political hurly-burly and to confirm he is slightly off-center. (When asked if he is crazy, Russell responds: “Any man that wants to be President is crazy.”)

The female roles are not as well-written as the males’, perhaps in keeping with women’s subordinate roles as political helpmates at the time Vidal wrote. Elizabeth Ashley, with the most stage experience, dating back to Barefoot in the Park in 1963 (including a prior stint in the 2000 Broadway revival), does the best here as Sue-Ellen Gamadge, chair of the women’s division of the party.

To be sure, Vidal could contoct howling one-liners with the best of them. (Russell refuses to credit the idea that Cantwell might be “degenerate”—i.e., in the parlance of the time, in this case, homosexual—noting: “No man with that awful wife and those ugly children could be anything but normal.”) At the same time, as America stood at the precipice of the most dangerous years of the Cold War (the Cuban Missile Crisis was only two years in the distance when the play premiered), the playwright evinced a powerful appreciation of what the Oval Office required. “You have no sense of responsibility towards anyone or anything,” Russell tells Cantwell. “And that is a tragedy in a man, and a disaster in a president.”

The title and denouement of the play are deeply ironic. Vidal was deeply skeptical that the American electorate could produce officeholders with the requisite intelligence and maturity—and he would have been the first to cite his own unsuccessful runs as evidence. But lines such as Russell’s to Cantwell suggest that, just this once, any consideration of his career might hold in abeyance his own frank admission of his admitted personality flaws: “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”

(In the accompanying photo, I caught Kristin Davis--who, in her Broadway debut, played Cantwell’s wife Mabel--after the show, graciously greeting a long line of stage-door fans, such as this unknown but extremely happy one. The long line represented, the former "Sex and the City" star joked, “the nice paparazzi.”)

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