The Broadway producer Jeffrey Richards has, if not a fixation for, at least a preoccupation with Gore Vidal’s 1960 political comedy, The Best Man (Schoenfeld Theatre), which he has now revived for the second time in a dozen years. The two revivals make an interesting study in contrasts. Richards’s previous attempt, directed by Ethan McSweeney in 2000, seemed to take its prevailing tone from the last name of its leading actor, the late Spalding Gray, whose distanced, unemphatic approach made his role—a patrician, sardonic presidential aspirant distrusted by his party as an intellectual—seem even more aloof. Gray set a chilly temperature that nobody else in McSweeney’s largely well-cast production seemed able to break.
McSweeney’s successes, a list the 2000 Best Man didn’t make, have come with taut, largely naturalistic plays. Richards’s new production is directed by Michael Wilson, whose notable work includes excursions into the more flamboyant realms of Tennessee Williams’s writing. Wilson’s solution is to turn Vidal’s cannily structured, snarkily funny drama into a big, noisy party, like the political convention at which it is set, complete with video simulcasts, blaring patriotic tunes, actors invading the aisles, ushers in Styrofoam boaters decorated with red-white-and-blue ribbons, and a celebrity-heavy cast that indulges in a good deal of outrageous but thoroughly entertaining ham bone.
Not surprisingly, Wilson’s Best Man makes a far better show than its predecessor—though the achievement has its ironic side, given the stream of dismissive jokes with which Vidal lacerates the showbiz tendencies of American politics. The script’s tidy construction, with its French well-made-play trick of supplying a quid pro quo for every maneuver the main characters attempt, turns out to be just as theatrically viable a piece of grandstanding as the politicians’ tricks it chronicles. The dramaturgical structure employed may be old-fashioned, but the word “creaky” turns out not to apply when the structure’s joints are oiled up with sufficient self-aware showiness.
Vidal’s take on our political system conveys a cynic’s brand of idealism: To him it’s all a rigged crap shoot, but there’s always the chance that one of the high rollers will decide to shoot straight for a change. To this end, he imagines a single party (unnamed) that somehow contains both an Adlai Stevenson and a Richard Nixon as its two leading contenders for the presidential nomination. The Stevensonian is William Russell (John Larroquette), a patrician, self-deprecating intellectual, whose sane moderateness, already undercut by his tendency to crack learned, ironic jokes, would be wholly smashed if word got out of his compulsive promiscuity and his history of depression and nervous breakdown.
Naturally, his opponent, Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack), a smarmy young demagogue-in-embryo, has bribed a psychiatric nurse to filch Russell’s medical records, and would like nothing better than to release them to the delegates before the next vote. Neither Cantwell nor Russell has enough votes to win; neither is disposed to make a deal. Will Cantwell’s blackmail break the deadlock? Inevitably, Russell’s loyal campaign manager (Michael McKean) has unearthed a piece of counter-blackmail, which principled Russell loathes the idea of using. As the two men’s confrontation looms, Vidal comes up with two very neat twists that leave the counter-blackmail only partly defused but lead to what might be a happier ending for the democratic process anyway.
Larroquette makes an appealingly dry, offhand figure of Russell, and McCormack smarms Cantwell’s phony sincerity with perfectly pitched smarminess. But while Vidal’s ideas, with which the action’s contrivance is thickly textured, are woven into the candidates’ roles, the evening’s fun is entrusted to two secondary characters, assigned here to two star box office magnets: A former president named Hockstader (James Earl Jones), whose folksy realpolitik suggests Harry Truman, and a gushing political clubwoman, Mrs. Gamadge (Angela Lansbury), whose gush usually carries a few hidden razor blades in its flotsam. Seeing Jones and Lansbury “take stage,” in the blatant way they do here, is something like watching a monarch annex a neighboring province, except that the consequences are delightful rather than dire. Their forthright takeover stance seems to have largely emboldened, rather than cowed, their colleagues. Kerry Butler clearly revels in Mrs. Cantwell, a Southern-fried blend of hush puppy and swamp snake, and Jefferson Mays turns Cantwell’s ex-Army buddy into a near-Chekhovian collection of tics. If political truth comes in shades of gray, it needs just this kind of red pepper to spice it up onstage.