Gore Vidal is a respected and prolific novelist, screenwriter, essayist, and playwright whose work spans over a half a century. Known for his unapologetic social and political commentary, he has produced some of the most compelling works of our era. His 1960 play The Best Man has enjoyed success on Broadway and in a 1964 film adaptation. I had the chance to see the most recent Broadway revival at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, and thanks to its all-star cast and timely political drama, it was a night full of pleasant surprises.
The summer 2012 revival of The Best Man has brought together an amazing group of accomplished performers, each bringing life to the complex characters that make this play so compelling. John Larroquette (Night Court, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) portrays William Russell, a scrupulous politician but a less honorable husband with a womanizing past. Cybill Shepherd (Moonlighting, The Client List) makes her Broadway debut as his estranged wife, Alice Russell, who comes to his side to help him win the party’s nomination for president despite their checkered past. John Stamos (Full House, Bye Bye Birdie) gives a particularly passionate and layered performance as Joseph Cantwell, a ruthless politician but devoted husband. Kristin Davis (Sex and the City, Melrose Place) plays his somewhat air-headed but fiercely loyal wife, Mabel.
Sparks begin to fly between the two candidates as they vie to become their party’s candidate for the Presidency. James Earl Jones gives a hilarious and sympathetic (and Tony-nominated) performance as former President Arthur Hockstader, a man whose endorsement might clinch the race. In a delightful comic role, Angela Lansbury (Sweeney Todd, Murder, She Wrote) played Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, the party’s voice for the female electorate and another powerful player in the race (Ms. Lansbury has since been replaced by the capable Elizabeth Ashley, who played the role in the 2000 revival of The Best Man).
It was certainly a treat to see so many famous faces on one stage, but The Best Man is much more than its star-studded cast (which originally starred Eric McCormack, Candice Bergen, and Kerry Butler). This production fills the theatre with a spirit of patriotism, political competition, and nostalgia for the 1960s by featuring countless banners and black-and-white monitors showing reports on the action and the candidates’ own statements. In addition, the play’s writing has created characters that are so perfectly and realistically complicated that they could have been pulled from our own world. Its behind-the-scenes look at the workings of a political party reveals hidden agendas, conflicting personalities, and incredibly challenging ethical struggles. In a Presidential election year, what could be more poignant?