While Republicans evaluate the electability of Mitt Romney vs. Rick Santorum, the revival of Gore Vidal's witty 1960 play, The Best Man, comes to Broadway. At the Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre, dressed up as convention headquarters, this Cold War era take on how Americans nominate our presidential candidates, the man in gray, a mere shape behind a scrim gets the prize, but he does not necessarily win. Observers of the political discourse will be amused, and reminded that the platitudes, empty promises, manufactured scandals, and colorful personalities even in dismaying blandness have been with us for a long time. Only now, media has brought them to us faster.
In The Best Man, opinion is stacked in favor of the high-minded principles of one candidate, William Russell (John Larroquette) who, by the way, cheats on his wife (although he doesn't hold a cigar to some in real political life). By contrast, the crass maneuverings of another, Joe Cantwell (Eric McCormack) show a familiar expedient disregard for anything but personal gain. Former-president, Arthur Hockstader (James Earl Jones), judiciously strategizes to which player he will throw his endorsement.
Parallel to these players are three women: Candice Bergen as Alice Russell is elegant and long-suffering; Kerry Butler as Mabel Cantwell is kittenish and gainfully vulgar. Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamage, Chair of the Woman's Committee can't help steal the scene especially in a floral ensemble, by the superb costume designer Ann Roth.
The play also features an array of exceptional supporting characters: Jefferson Mays plays sweetly weak as Sheldon Marcus, an old buddy brought in to pit scandal against scandal. Michael McKean as Russell's campaign manager knows the limits of his candidate's references to Prince Hamlet. Angelica Page gives a fashionable air to the small but memorable role of a campaign aide. It may be one of the subtleties of Michael Wilson's fine direction that you wonder: did she too make it with Secretary Russell?
The real winner is Gore Vidal's deft language, providing a requisite humor for the 2012 battle ahead. Sadly as Americans sort out the values of the real candidates, The Best Man is a reminder that the worst man will have a chance to triumph, and the best may only be a shadow of our highest ideals.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.