The Democratic and Republican National Conventions may not be taking place until this summer, but there is a ton of back room politicking taking place right now at the Schoenfeld Theatre, and this former political operative and eternal The West Wing acolyte loves it!
Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, directed by Michael Wilson, takes place at a presidential nominating convention in Philadelphia in 1960. (Note that this is some space-time continuum parallel 1960, in which, similar to The West Wing, some actual history is part of the play’s characters’ history, but a split from reality is made with regard to recent history. This is not meant to depict JFK’s nomination, for example.)
When you walk into the Schoenfeld, you’re actually walking into the convention hall. Scenic designer Derek McLane has adorned the walls – even up in the mezzanine – with state placards (New York; Vermont; Mississippi), which, in a real convention, would delineate the states’ delegations. Retro television sets hang throughout the theatre so that we can see the news broadcasts (which, by the way, are broadcast live by John Malcolm (Sherman Howard) from house left box seats!). And instead of the typical pre-show music, we hear a mix of John Philip Sousa tunes and the play’s characters’ floor speeches. This is about as close to immersion theatre as a Broadway production can get.
So I was already loving the production before the curtain went up. As the three acts unfolded, I kept loving it more and more. Though there are three men vying for the nomination, our focus is on the top two candidates: Secretary William Russell (John Larroquette) and Senator Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack). Russell is a party veteran and a bit of an idealist. In his camp are his campaign manager Dick Jensen (Michael McKean) and his savvy but disenchanted (personally and professionally) wife, Alice (Candice Bergen). Cantwell, on the other hand, is a young, slick, southern opportunist, and is variably helped and hindered by his consummately southern wife, Mabel (Kerry Butler).
Also along for the ride are two party elders: the chairman of the women’s division, Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge (Angela Lansbury) and Former President Artie Hockstader (James Earl Jones – ruminations about that casting below).
It’s a stellar cast, and, for the most part, they don’t let you down. McCormack is eerily good as the well-groomed politician (though both he and Butler would benefit from a dialect coach – their southern accents were nothing if not inconsistent). Bergen brought the unmistakable mettle of a woman who is strong beyond what’s acceptable for the time and must balance that with being a candidate’s wife. The legendary Lansbury and Jones are terrific. Lansbury seems to be having a ball, a chipper, spitfire of a woman, slightly reminiscent of the fierce Ann Richards. And Jones commands the stage every time he appears, and not just because of his booming voice. Much like the characters in the play revere the party leader, the actors have a palpable reverence for the formidable actor and they seem to revel in watching Jones play around on stage.
Despite the thrill of watching James Earl Jones on stage, I did question his casting. Not because of his acting chops but because he was playing a former president, he’s black and the play takes place in 1960. Now, obviously the producers weren’t trying to pass him off as President Eisenhower, but even so: is blind casting okay even if it flies directly in the face of any semblance of historical accuracy? (Perhaps I’m misinterpreting his presidency, and maybe he’s actually the former president of the party, but heads of parties are usually referred to as chairmen. Even if this is what was meant, I would argue that it still lacks fidelity.)
What surprised me the most in my reactions to the cast is that I was impressed with Larroquette. It took me a few minutes to get over my anger about his 2011 Tony win (Rory O’Malley was robbed!), but then I remember how much I liked him as Lionel Tribbey on The West Wing and as Dan Fielding on Night Court, and I started watching his performance. It’s really good. Larroquette’s Secretary Russell is the kind of guy President Bartlet would like. He endeavors to appeal to people’s intellect, and wants to run a policy-based campaign. The climax of the play revolves around each candidate’s decision of whether or not to smear the other with some skeleton. Russell laments having to make such a choice; he says it shouldn’t be personal, that there’s so much to gripe about regarding Cantwell’s public life there’s no need to delve into the personal. Russell wants a campaign of substance and reason, not ten-word answers. Larroquette conveys Russell’s struggle with conviction, strength and agility, and you wish more people like Russell would run for office.
And those political themes are what struck me most about this revival. Some things never change. After the apocalypse, we’ll be left with cockroaches, Cher and politics. This set up – the back-room politicking and infighting – though set in 1960 could have easily taken place in the days of the Roman senate and could just as easily take place, in, let’s say, 2016, when we very well may have an open field on both sides. (I also cottoned to the superlative writing, which included Russell going off on elocution safari (to borrow a phrase), to which his campaign manager responded, “I’ll reprimand them for being anti-semantics!”)
Reflecting on The Best Man, I think it makes a good starting point for a political drama trilogy: You start with The Best Man and choose your candidate. Then you follow the candidate on the campaign trail by watching Robert Redford in the excellent The Candidate. You can cap it off by exploring what happens once you get in office by having a The West Wing marathon (focus on seasons one-four). Sounds like fun, right? So head on over to 45th Street to catch the terrific cast bring to life this sardonic, smart and instructive satire of presidential politics.
For more information about The Best Man and to purchase tickets, visit thebestmanonbroadway.com.
- Michael McKean talks to Broadway's Best Shows about the role of the campaign manager, and getting to work with James Earl Jones!
- View production stills, taken by Joan Marcus.
(All headshots taken from the “Meet the Cast” page of the play’s website.)
And since we’re talking about elections and voting, make sure you stay informed throughout this election season. Read the paper or a news magazine. (I like The New York Times and Rolling Stone.) Watch a news program. (I like "fake" news programs like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Real Time with Bill Maher.) Become an informed voter! (Not registered to vote? Visit rockthevote.com to register today.)