Taking the arch writing of Gore Vidal and giving those words to James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen and Eric McCormack, is nothing short of brilliant.
In the revival of “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man,” the Schoenfeld Theatre is decked out in red, white and blue bunting as the audience watches the behind-the-scenes maneuvering at a 1960 presidential convention in a Philadelphia hotel.
Though it is not said which party this is — or if it is, it is certainly not stressed — it does not matter. What matters is politics.
The play, which was also a 1964 movie, revolves around what could be a brokered convention. Former Secretary of State William Russell (Larroquette, a Tony winner last season for “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” TV’s “Night Court”) is running against Sen. Joseph Cantwell (McCormack, TV’s “Will & Grace”). Russell is an intellectual who quotes Bertrand Russell, cheats on his wife and has a nervous breakdown.
He and Alice (Bergen, TV’s “Murphy Brown”) are estranged but she has come to the convention to stand by his side. Russell sees himself as a leader because he will do what he thinks is right and isn’t afraid to take unpopular stands. He hasn’t the stomach for the down-and-dirty side of politics, while Cantwell is a street fighter who would side with the devil if it got him elected.
Both men are completely believable in their roles. Initially, Bergen seems too tentative, but that is her character — a private woman forced into a public life and weathering a marriage that has not gone the way she wanted. Her hesitancy and shyness are just what Alice needs.
The only off notes are Kerry Butler (“Catch Me If You Can” on Broadway, “30 Rock” on TV) as Mabel Cantwell, Joseph’s way-over-the-top Southern belle of a wife, and the costumes. No reporter in 1960 would wear a baseball cap to a press conference, and Alice’s suits — particularly the lavender one — look far more 1990s country club than 1960s. Those, however, are easily ignored.
Happily, Lansbury as the gossipy, self-important Mrs. Gamadge and Jones as former President Hockstader are not.
Not that Lansbury calls more attention to herself than is needed. Though clearly part of the ensemble, the five-time Tony Award winner knows how to make an entrance. So does Jones, who looks to be having more fun on stage than is legal.
Mrs. Gamadge sees herself as the voice of all women. She dislikes the New Deal, professors and smart alecks, and likes Eisenhower and flowery ensembles. She has just enough bitchiness in her to make her really interesting.
Both candidates court the former president’s endorsement but he’s coy about who will receive it. There’s a third candidate but we don’t even meet him as the two main candidates spar over Russell’s mental heath history and Cantwell’s sexual past, which may include homosexual encounters in the Army.
Michael McKean as Dick Jensen, Russell’s campaign manager, and Jefferson Mays as a twitchy Army acquaintance, are wonderful.
The former president relishes being in the middle, having everyone court him.
“I was brought up on a farm, so the lesson of the rooster is not exactly lost on me,” Hockstader says.
As the play moves on, plot twists make it so that each candidate has the opportunity to smear the other; it’s really a question of who will do it and to what extent.
When Mrs. Cantwell intentionally irks Mrs. Russell, Mrs. Russell says, “I’d like to think intelligence was contagious. Unfortunately, it isn’t.”
In this play, which has more relevance than one would hope half a century after the time in which it is set, intelligence is in every line and plot twist.