It's common courtesy not to speak ill of the dead. Happily, a return to Gore Vidal's sturdy old political drama The Best Man stirs no nasty impulse. With a clutch of new cast members who are the equal or even better than their predecessors and James Earl Jones in fighting trim, it's an amiable night of the theater that has moved up a notch in my estimation. (Here's a link to my original review on April 2.)
This show, which opened on Broadway in March of 1960 and was set at the presidential convention in Philly that same year, shows two candidates going at each other to gain advantage in a deadlocked vote where neither one has enough support to gain their party's nomination. John Larroquette, that increasingly valuable stage actor, is the intellectual Easterner. John Stamos is the wily, good-looking, more conservative plain talker who has dug up dirt on Larroquette's nervous breakdown and wants to smear him out of the race. Stamos's role was originally played by Eric McCormack, who handled the wily subterfuge and gay subtext better. However, Stamos's take provides a clearer contrast to the classics-quoting Larroquette and brings a slight George W. Bush aura, which sets off their showdown nicely.
Cybill Shepherd has stepped in for Candice Bergen as Larroquette's estranged wife back in the saddle for the sake of the campaign. Neither women was wholly comfortable on stage though that would surely come with time. Where Bergin played the wife as thoroughly uncomfortable at every moment, Shepherd uses her cool reserve to show a woman who has made her decision and will live with it; she may not like the situation but she's up to the task. Kristin Davis has a hoot as the wife of Stamos. But the biggest contrast is Elizabeth Ashley who steps in for the great but fragile Angela Lansbury. Lansbury was shaky physically and that gave her role a grand old dame vibe, whereas Ashley gets more mileage out of the Southern belle, a flighty woman who has a steely reserve and serious points to make amidst her fluttering.
All in all, the cast changes are fun and have reinvigorated and re-imagined (modestly) a light entertainment, the sort of show Broadway turned out with ease once upon. Vidal's play deals with timeless issues of race and politics and morality and what it takes to win and whether you can sell your soul for victory and still do good. But mostly it just wants to have fun.
Among the veterans still with the show, two are especially notable. Jefferson Mays gave a much subtler performance this time around. His fumbling, stumbling turn as an old military buddy of Stamos with some dirt of his own seemed goofier the first time I caught it. This time Mays had settled in to a more wily, nuanced turn. But best of all was Jones. On the critic's night I saw him before the opening in April, he stumbled on some lines and seemed nearly as fragile in his burly way as Lansbury. But now he's a lion in winter, fully in charge and roaring with glee in his chewy role as an ailing president who rightly sees flaws in both candidates and can't for the life of him decide which one to support but mostly enjoys the final burst of attention and power his endorsement holds.
Jones is in fine fettle, making the most of the juicy, broadly outlined President Hockstader. You might want to dip into Vidal's large body of work and start reading some of his historical novels, probably the art of his that will endure the longest. But if you're in New York and have a chance to see The Best Man, you'll receive the double pleasure of nodding goodbye to the late Vidal while savoring one of acting's legends in excellent form.
Here's Gore Vidal late in his life, as waspish and politically charged as ever.
THE THEATER SEASON 2012-2013 (on a four star scale)
As You Like it (Shakespeare In The Park w Lily Rabe) ****
Chimichangas And Zoloft *
Closer Than Ever ***
Cock ** 1/2
Harvey with Jim Parsons *
My Children! My Africa! ***
Once On This Island ***
Potted Potter *
Storefront Church ** 1/2
Title And Deed ***
Picture Incomplete (NYMF) **
Flambe Dreams (NYMF) **
Rio (NYMF) **
The Two Month Rule (NYMF) *
Trouble (NYMF) ** 1/2
Stealing Time (NYMF) **
Requiem For A Lost Girl (NYMF) ** 1/2
Re-Animator The Musical (NYMF) ***
Baby Case (NYMF) ** 1/2
How Deep Is The Ocean (NYMF) ** 1/2
Central Avenue Breakdown (NYMF) ***
Foreverman (NYMF) * 1/2
Swing State (NYMF) * 1/2
Stand Tall: A Rock Musical (NYMF) * 1/2
Living With Henry (NYMF) *
A Letter To Harvey Milk (NYMF) ** 1/2
The Last Smoker In America **
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