Theatre Review – “The Best Man” @ Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 3/31/12

By: Dan Mason @djdan1079

Tensions are high as two political candidates arrive at their party’s nominating convention in Philadelphia. On one hand, you have a millionaire, whose critics claim is “out of touch” with the needs of average American. On the other side, a Senator who worked his way up from the farmland and allows his deep religious beliefs to guide his vision for the country. It sounds like it could be plucked out of today’s headlines, but Gore Vidal’s The Best Man was written in 1960. Some 50 years later, the show feels as relevant as ever at the Schoenfeld Theatre.

Led by an all-star ensemble of actors, the play examines the behind the scenes maneuvering of the election cycle, and asks if men choose to corrupt themselves in a quest for power? Or whether that desire for power is what makes them corrupt in the first place?

John Larroquette, an Emmy winner for his work on Night Court, and a Tony Winner for last season’s performance in How to Succeed, plays Secretary William Russell, a former member of President Artie Hockstader’s cabinet, and the current frontrunner for his party’s nomination. Russell is not without flaws. His womanizing and affairs are no secret to those around him, including his wife Alice (a wonderfully deadpan Candace Bergen). Yet, he also serves as the moral compass of the show. When his competitor begins the mud slinging and uses Russell’s prior mental health issues as a negative attack, Russell is forced to decide whether he should retaliate and go negative as well.

It’s a tactic that isn’t just encouraged by his campaign manager (a lost in the shuffle Michael McKeon), but by former President Hockstader himself. James Earl Jones plays the former Commander-In-Chief, in what is one of the more puzzling casting decisions in recent memory. The play is set in 1960, which means that the audience is to believe that America had an African-American president in the 1950’s, some ten years before the assasination of MLK, and three years before the Civil Rights March in Washington. I’m all for color blind casting in almost every instance, but it’s just hard to suspend one’s disbelief to the point of ignoring a significant part of our country’s history.

ImageTo Jones’ credit, you do forget about this point during the second act, because he’s putting on a master class in acting technique. Hockstader is rapidly deteriorating, but is motivated to play the game one last time, encouraging a little political backbiting and offering his endorsement to the man who can play the game the best. At 81 years old, it’s reasonable to expect to see him stumble over the occasional line, but Jones makes it look like an acting choice. His scenes with Larroquette, in particular are a joy to watch.

Erik McCormick of Will & Grace plays the slick, ambitious, Senator Joseph Cantwell. While the devout, religious beliefs of his character call to mind Rick Santorum, the down home, southern charm and devious smile make him feel more like John Edwards. McCormick lacked the gravitas needed to feel like a serious Presidential candidate during the first act, but he fared better as the show progressed and plays the desperate, win by any means nature of Cantwell extremely well. As Cantwell’s wife, Mabel, musical theatre veteran Kerry Butler (Hairspray, Xanadu, Catch Me If You Can) feels a little too over the top, even for a role that calls for an actress to play it big.

Oh, and there is an up and comer named Angela Lansbury in the show as well. Playing the role of the Women’s Division chair, Sue Ellen Gamadge, Lansbury’s time onstage is limited to about four scenes, but she commands the stage, nails her jokes, and left to applause at every exit she made.

Larroquette might not be the biggest commercial name in the program, but make no mistake this is his show. His character might be a philanderer, and might have a history of mental illness, but yet you admire him because he’s a good person. His Senator Russell often says “may the best man win”, but Larroquette is the best man on this stage, which is high praise given the talent involved. I can’t imagine that he isn’t in line for another Tony nomination this year.

For a three act show, director Michael Wilson (The Orphans’ Home Cycle) keeps the action zipping along at a brisk pace. The show runs at about 2 hours and 40 minutes, including two intermissions. The set design by Derek McLane is superb.

The Best Man is a limited, 18-week, engagement. The matinee I attended appeared to be a sellout. Get your tickets while you can.

Grade: A-

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