Even more than half a century after its Broadway debut, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man still has a timely pull. And it’s hard not tease out modern resonances in this old-fashioned political drama about two bitterly opposed presidential candidates (and their equally contentious wives) heading into a brokered Democratic convention in 1960 Philadelphia.
On the one hand, there’s the Adlai Stevenson-like William Russell (John Larroquette), the brainy, witty former secretary of state who manages to alienate even admirers with his know-it-all standoffishness. On the other hand, there?s Joseph Cantwell (a seriously miscast Eric McCormack, with an ever-wavering Southern accent), a slick young God-fearing senator with a ruthless streak who seems to be equal parts John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Russell is the front-runner heading into the convention, but Cantwell is planning to unleash a bombshell to tilt the nomination in his favor: the fact that Russell once had a nervous breakdown and sought treatment by a psychiatrist.
But when we meet Russell’s wife, Alice, she may seem to be the one who suffered the breakdown. Candice Bergen, in her first appearance on Broadway in more than 25 years, seems tentative and uncomfortable in the first act — perhaps fitting for a mostly estranged political wife awkwardly thrust into the convention spotlight. (The actress grows more comfortable as the play proceeds.) Her counterpart shows no similar sign of hesitation. Indeed, as the pushily ambitious Mabel Cantwell, Kerry Butler is a scene-stealing hoot with all the brazenness of a Bravo reality TV star.
Indeed, director Michael Wilson’s revival boasts an impressive collection of pros, particularly in some of the juicy supporting roles. Why, there’s 81-year-old James Earl Jones chewing gum (and Derek McLane’s scenery) as the Truman-like former president who’s expected to play kingmaker among the contenders but mostly delivers gems like this: ”In those days we had to pour God over everything, like ketchup.” And there’s 86-year-old Angela Lansbury, sharp as a tack even if she needs a cane now to command the stage, as the Southern grand dame who chairs the party’s women’s division and sways the crucial women’s vote.
The play’s twists, which include a then-scandalous gay rumor, may seem less surprising to audiences grown jaded by Fox News, MSNBC, and the 24/7 political spin cycle. But Vidal’s play remains remarkably well-constructed (and the cast will doubtless improve the pacing, which moseys occasionally, as they grow into their roles). The author’s undercurrent of idealism remains as winning today as it did back in 1960 — though perhaps even more quaint. B
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