When Gore Vidal's The Best Man opened in 1960, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were slugging it out for the Democratic presidential nomination. Half a century later, it's a quartet of Republicans who are slinging the mud at one another in a no-holds-barred fight to be the GOP standard-bearer, and Michael Wilson's riveting revival is a timely reminder that in politics, the more things change the more they stay the same.
Under Wilson's direction, a stellar cast led by an excellent John Larroquette, James Earl Jones, Eric McCormack and Candice Bergen injects fresh vitality, humor, and tension to the quadrennial American circus of electing a president. Vidal's satiric wit still pierces the pomposity of politicians, and the Machiavellian conundrum of whether the end justifies the means remains the central ethical dilemma.
The Best Man opens at a party convention in Philadelphia with the front-runner, William Russell (Larroquette), a seasoned and erudite secretary of state, being closely chased by an opportunistic anti-Mafia crusader, Sen. Joseph Cantwell (McCormack). The endorsement of one or the other by former President Arthur Hockstader (Jones) would sew up the nomination for either, but Hockstader is being coy.
Since politicians are only human, despite what they might have you believe, each has a skeleton in his closet. Russell, a serial philanderer who can't remember when he last slept in the same bed with his wife (Bergen), had a breakdown some years earlier and although he has fully recovered, he has so far managed to keep it from becoming public. Cantwell, who boasts a squeaky clean image as a happily married father who doesn't drink, smoke, or play around, has a dark blot on his army record that he thought he had covered up. Even Hockstader has a secret. He is terminally ill, but wants his last hurrah at this convention. "Politics is like gambling," he says, rubbing his hands.
Although the play is set in 1960, it is surprising how many of the same issues crop up today. Women using birth control was as contentious then as now; religion was and is a major factor, whether it's Catholicism or Islam; America's China policy was and is a main concern; and the use of U.S. military might was and is a hot topic, whether it's to defend Taiwan or to stop Iran's nuclear program.
Unlike today, however, it was a time when politicians' private lives still remained mostly private. But when each candidate learns the other's secret, he must face the question of whether to use the information to destroy his opponent. Dirty politics and negative ads have become such a staple of our political life, it is hard to remember when conscience played a part in it. If the process rarely allows the best man to win, at least it usually gives us the least worst man.
It is Russell who is at the moral center of the play, and Vidal put something of both Kennedy and Johnson (with a bit of Adlai Stevenson) into the character. Russell is a wealthy, Harvard-educated, Easterner, fast with a quip but also a man not afraid to speak his mind. "If you don't offend anyone, you don't please anyone either," he says. Cantwell is a street fighter who will do anything to win. If the Mafia justifies murder as "just business," Cantwell excuses lying and cheating as "just politics."
Wilson keeps his cast of 20 fine actors moving like a bandwagon. Larroquette is superb as a man torn by ambition and integrity, and McCormack is a portrait of self-righteousness as the conniving and ruthless upstart. Jones is a marvel in a performance that carries all the power and authority of the presidency along with the frailty of the infirm. Bergen is quietly brilliant as the neglected wife who will endure anything for the man she once loved, and Angela Lansbury is suitably dowdy as the matronly Sue-Ellen Gamadge, lecturing the candidates on what women voters want and provoking a cat fight between the their wives. Michael McKean adds a splendid turn as Russell's erudite campaign manager, and Jefferson Mays is slithery as the squealer who brings Cantwell's past out in the open. If there is any question mark in the cast, it would be Kerry Butler's portrayal of Cantwell's wife as a sort of bubble-headed chorine.
The Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre has been transformed into a convention hall, decked with bunting, election posters, state delegation standards, even a TV anchorman offering commentary from a side box. Derek McLane's detailed sets move seamlessly between the candidates' hotel suites and the convention floor, and to keep the audience in the campaign mood, John Gromada's sound design blares marching-band music while delegate speechifying drones in the background between scenes.