Political Theater

04/18/2012 4:00 AM |

The Best Man
Schoenfeld Theatre

When The Best Man first played on Broadway in 1960, its playwright, Gore Vidal, was a literary man, a Hollywood and television writer, and already a sleek and articulate presence himself on television. He also nursed political ambitions, and he was friendly with John F. Kennedy; he was related to Jackie by marriage. The villain of Vidal’s play is Joe Cantwell, a ruthless political operator who has made his name by busting several small-time Mafia criminals, which makes him kin to Kennedy’s brother Bobby, who would later become one of Vidal’s many notable enemies. At 86, Vidal has outlived practically all of his enemies, from Truman Capote to William F. Buckley, and he has outlived Bobby Kennedy by many years, but The Best Man keeps reappearing, first as a film in 1964, then as a Broadway revival not so long ago (2000), and now as another Broadway revival (through July 8), this time packed with theater titans like Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones and TV names like John Larroquette, Eric McCormack and Candice Bergen.

Is it worth attending this play again so soon after its last Broadway run? Vidal no doubt sees it as a piece of sturdy machinery that can be made to fit any election year, but in many ways this clever but often threadbare play was clearly meant for just the 1960 theater season. Older audience members and educated younger ones will understand references to Adlai Stevenson and even Henry Luce, but other issues and names from the past will seem much murkier. The play has been cast with stars who are often not well suited to their roles, particularly McCormack, who is too naturally ingratiating to suggest a supposedly dangerous political animal like Joe Cantwell. In the part originally played by dyspeptic old-timer Lee Tracy, James Earl Jones does a lot of clichéd huffing and puffing, holding our attention but never convincing us that he’s a cagey old president on his last legs.

Larroquette is solid as Howard Russell, a liberal intellectual who gets most of Vidal’s best lines against the dastardly Cantwell, and Jefferson Mays brings a vivid obsequious quality to his role as a betrayer out to bring down Cantwell. But there is little at stake here beyond congratulating the audience for laughing and applauding Larroquette’s unflagging decency and hissing at McCormack’s villainy (it’s a measure, though, of how times have changed that the perennially sarcastic Larroquette feels well enough cast in a role originally played by an immovably honorable and sincere Melvyn Douglas). Vidal likes to tell a story that Ronald Reagan sought to play Douglas’s role on stage but the playwright nixed him as not sufficiently presidential. Like many of Vidal’s tales with famous names attached, it should be taken with a grain of salt, just as The Best Man should be taken as a slickly written play of its time that stands as a mourning in advance over Vidal’s own soon-dashed political dreams.