The current production of The Best Man by literary queer elder statesman Gore Vidal snaps along at a terrific pace – a very good thing for a three-act political drama to do. The play is set in Philadelphia at heavily fictionalized 1960 Democratic convention (Vidal wrote the piece in advance of the actual convention). In it, smart and honest candidate William Russell (based very loosely on Adlai Stevenson), mixes it up in backrooms at a highly contested convention with the smooth but unethically ruthless Joe Cantwell.
I’m in many ways a great idealist when it comes to politics, but at the same time totally compelled by the dirty intrigues of realpolitik. So Vidal’s play is total catnip to me just on the face of it. The fact that director Michael Wilson has put together such an incredible cast to put the play over, made this show a real joy to watch.
John Larroquette brings surprising gravitas, as well as his expected wit, to the role of William Russell. Eric McCormack is appropriately oily and snake-eyed as political snake-oil salesman Cantwell. James Earl Jones, in a very fine piece of color-blind casting, brings out a wicked pleasure in gamesmanship as ailing former president Artie Hockstader.
Angela Lansbury gives us a delightful combination of steely-eyed determination and dotty charm as “Women’s Division” leader Mrs. Gamadge. Candice Bergen is ideally cast as Russell’s long-suffering, acerbic wife Alice. Michael McKean and Kerry Butler are wonderful in smaller roles, and Jefferson Mays almost steals the show as Sheldon, a shlubby ex-serviceman with some salacious dirt on Cantwell.
While having a candidate as genuinely liberal and ethical as Russell may be an exercise in fantasy these days, it is undeniably pleasant to reflect on that brief early 1960s moment when such fantasies had an air of reality. Overall, this production is an intelligent pleasure, certainly not to be missed.
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