Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gore Vidal's The Best Man

There's something comforting about being reminded, every so often, of that old saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Gore Vidal's 1960 chestnut The Best Man, currently easing into the final stretch of its excessively star-studded revival at the Schoenfeld Theatre, is a testament to the best and worst aspects of that adage. Almost half a century ago, the play reminds us, American politicians were just as corrupt and corruptible, backhanded, backstabbing, status- and image-obsessed, and power-hungry as they are now. Then as now, when a politician insisted that he had nothing to hide, he damned well did; then as now, it was hard to tell the person from the persona, and honesty from opportunism. Perhaps the fact that I find all this comforting makes me as deeply cynical as Vidal's characters, but so be it: I sort of like being reminded that ours is not the very worst of times, that American party politics has always been pretty ludicrous, and that our republic manages to stand nonetheless.  

The Best Man began its run in March 2012, when the Republican nomination for president had yet to be cinched. Back then, even though everyone was pretty sure that Romney would end up taking the lead, there was some--um--surprise surging that momentarily disrupted the now-typical trajectory. I suspect that the Vidal play felt slightly less dated before all that jostling stopped, and with it the hint of anything approximating suspense. One thing that has most certainly changed in electoral politics is that there is no longer quite as much in the way of surprise, at least when it comes to the run for the White House. The Best Man hinges on the frantic back-room dealings among candidates vying for delegates in the kinds of lurid, mud-slinging, liquor-fueled, white-knuckled battles that used to take place during the presidential convention itself. Sounds exciting, no? Actually, dated or not, The Best Man is rather inconsistent, as plays go. It's very talky, a tad too long, oddly paced, and peopled with characters who are not always fully fleshed out or very interesting.

The logic seems to have gone, with this revival, that even a dated show about election-year politics would run well during an election year, especially if it were filled to the brim with famous people that the audience just couldn't stop applauding and appreciating, even when they're barely onstage or just phoning it in. James Earl Jones available to chew the scenery as an LBJ-like, sassy former president (and yes, I just called LBJ "sassy")? Check. Would Angela Lansbury be willing to play the even sassier chair(wo)man of the party's women's division? Check, and if she could spin comic gold out of a throwaway line about the rhythm method somewhere in the middle of act II, even better. How about the dueling politicians? John Larroquette as the brooding intellectual idealist? Got him! John Stamos (replacing Eric McCormack) as the young, power-hungry opportunist? He's in! How about their wives? Cybill Shepherd (replacing Candace Bergen) and Kristin Davis (replacing Kerry Butler), respectively? Check, check! Seriously, even the bit parts in this show are played by highly recognizable theater folk: try Jefferson Mays, Mark Blum and Donna-effing-Hanover on for size, beeeeyatches. Don't recognize the names? Believe me, you've seen them all--maybe just on "Law and Order," or in a bit part in some movie, or learning via press conference that her icky weasel of a husband plans to divorce her for the woman he has been openly dating behind her back, but anyway, you've seen them all somewhere.

And for the most part, seeing them all together up on stage is good fun: Jones and Lansbury, especially, are just as delicious as you'd expect them to be. Great actors earn their names as great actors for good reason; the two of them just sort of sparkle. Lansbury is especially sparkly in the flowy, flowery, bejeweled orange-and-peach getup she's decked out in for much of the second half of the show, but then again, Jones wears a boring old suit throughout, and yet every changing expression on his face is worth memorizing. Larroquette's role is not as fancy--he plays a brooding, introspective, sensitive type--but he's impressive in it. And Stamos, having only just taken over for the departing Eric McCormack, does a fine job as the more amoral, opportunistic candidate.

I wish I could rave, as well, for Davis and Shepherd, but they, like their predecessors, seem to have been cast in thankless, horribly dated roles merely to fill out the famous-people quotient in the cast. Davis does fine as the sexy, ditzy wife of Stamos's character, and she wears clothing very well; seriously, that's sort of what seems to be much of what is required of her role. Davis was raised in Columbia, South Carolina, and yet her southern accent needs some work. Otherwise, kudos to her for being able to find a character somewhere in the folds of her many outfits.

Shepherd easily has the most punishing role in the play: she is the estranged wife of the Larroquette character. He has apparently thrown her over for many, many other younger, sillier women, and they've lived separate lives for a while. She is brought back into the fold because it's looking like he's going to get the nomination, and so he needs to pose as a happily married man whose little woman adores him. It turns out that she's cool with appearing publicly on his arm and waving to the cameras and talking about what a great man he is because despite his rather vicious rejection of her, she believes in him and thinks he'd be a good president. Also, she still misses him and wants him back and...ick. Shepherd is, like Davis, new to the role and clearly not yet comfortable in it. She warmed up a bit in the second act, but then again, there's not much to warm up to; in speaking her stilted, wooden lines, she comes off as--you got it--stilted and wooden. It doesn't help that whoever designed her costumes hasn't quite figured out how to dress her. Are you noticing a trend, here? Clothing, in this play, really makes the women; there's simply not much else available to them.

Which brings me back to that old saying, "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Just as it's comforting to be reminded that politics have always been dirty, it's also comforting to be reminded that when it comes to the public realm, more and more of us have been invited to sit at the welcome table and fling mud at each other in the years since this play was written and first launched on Broadway. Knowing this may not make for the most thrilling evening at the theater, but it's good to be reminded of it, by a truly dazzling cast, nonetheless.

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