NYC Theater Review: ‘Gore Vidal’s The Best Man’ by Bari Biern

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On March 31, 1960, Gore Vidal’s political drama, The Best Man, premiered on Broadway. The play was set in two posh hotel suites at a national political convention, as one presidential candidate was poised to release potentially harmful information about his opponent’s health.  Just a few months later, life imitated art at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, where supporters of Lyndon B. Johnson questioned the health of the leading contender for the Oval Office, a 43-year-old Massachusetts senator named John F. Kennedy.

Kerry Butler, Eric McCormack, and Angela Lansbury in a scene from Gore Vidal's “The Best Man.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

After 520 performances and six Tony nominations, including a win for Melvyn Douglas as Best Actor, The Best Man got the Hollywood treatment with a 1964 film version starring Henry Fonda.  Since then, the play has been revived twice in New York.  The current production opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on March 6, 2012.  54 years after The Best Man’s Broadway debut, the power struggles and political backstabbing are eerily and wearily resonant.

Vidal’s incisive script is laced with dark humor and desperation as two candidates, former Secretary of State, Bill Russell ((John Larroquette), and Senator Joe Cantwell (Eric McCormack) battle to the wire for their party’s nomination.  Both are hoping to score a key endorsement from former president, Art Hockstader (James Earl Jones).

You are unlikely to see a more magnificent or star-studded cast on Broadway this season. Candice Bergen plays Russell’s estranged wife, Alice, with keen intelligence and dry wit. Though long jaded by politics, Bergen’s Alice has quietly come to terms with what’s expected of her as a candidate’s spouse. She manages to stay calm and grounded amidst the turmoil of the campaign and emerges as one of the few genuinely likeable characters in the play.

Jones fairly frolics as President Hockstader, thoroughly enjoying the agony of the two potential nominees and playfully dangling his critical endorsement like a solid gold carrot.

John Larroquette is Russell, a thoughtful intellectual, very much in the mold of Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956. A self-declared “liberal,” Russell is a candidate with a conscience, whose integrity is a hallmark of his campaign, if not his marriage.  Larroquette’s empathetic portrayal reveals Russell’s struggle to keep his hands clean in the mudslinging world of politics.

Eric McCormack, Kerry Butler, Corey Brill and James Earl Jones in a scene from 'Gore Vidal's The Best Man." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Eric McCormack’s Cantwell is a smooth and cunning con man, willing to crush anyone who stands between him and the White House, all while flashing a boyish million-dollar smile.

There are equally strong supporting performances from Michael McKean as Russell’s campaign manager, Kerry Butler as Cantwell’s attractive and uber-ambitious wife, Angela Lansbury as Sue-Ellen Gamadge, the moneyed dowager who schools the candidates on tailoring their positions to appeal to “the women”, and Jefferson Mays as Sheldon Marcus, whose arrival at the convention threatens to derail one candidate’s campaign.

Director Michael Wilson keeps a tight rein on the proceedings, yet moves the action at a strong and deliberate pace toward the climactic edge of the cliff.

Following recent Tony nominations for Best Revival of a Play and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play (James Earl Jones), The Best Man will extend through September 9th. With a brilliant script and an unparalleled company, the show is an embarrassment of riches.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with two intermissions.

The Best Man plays through September 9th at the Schoenfeld Theatre – 236 West 45th Street. (between 7th & 8th Avenues), in New York, NY. For tickets, purchase them online or call Telecharge at (800) 432-7250.

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Bari Biern
Bari Biern is an actress/playwright/lyricist whose first musical, 'A Dance Against Darkness: Living with AIDS' (with composer Roy Barber) was nominated for Helen Hayes Awards as Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Resident Musical. She wrote the lyrics for 'Riddle Me a Prince,' a children’s musical which premiered at Imagination Stage, with book by Ernie Joselovitz and Harry Bagdasian, and music by Emmy Award winner, Lenny Williams. She contributes lyrics to the political satire troupe, the Capitol Steps, and has been performing with them since 1993. Bari was the lyricist for the critically-acclaimed In Series production of 'The Marriage of Figaro: Las Vegas Version.' That opera (with dialogue by Elizabeth Pringle) was presented by Philadelphia’s Poor Richard’s Opera Company as part of the 2010 Philly Fringe Festival. Poor Richard’s also presented 'Gianni Schicchi,' featuring Bari’s English libretto. In 2011, Bari was the librettist for WAM2, a co-production of the In Series and the Washington Ballet. She also wrote the script for the In Series’ 'Arlen Blues & Berlin Ballads,' which premiered earlier this year. Bari has reviewed theatre and film in the DC area for WAMU-FM’s Metro Connection.