Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Through July 8, $66.50-$226.50
The second revival of Gore Vidal’s 1960 Tony-nominated The Best Man arrives in an election year that has witnessed a bizarre race for the Republican presidential nomination, as a series of candidates kept leap-frogging one another for the opportunity to take on an incumbent president whose popularity is highly tenuous and whose grasp on the White House might be extremely vulnerable. Inspired by Adlai Stevenson and the Kennedy-Nixon campaign of 1960, Vidal’s drama is still filled with relevance more than fifty years later as a Clintonesque figure battles a Santorum-like up-and-comer for the presidential nomination at an unnamed party convention in Philadelphia in 1960. John Larroquette is phenomenal as William Russell, a former secretary of state who is intelligent, charismatic, and honest to a fault, as well as a womanizer who recently suffered a secret nervous breakdown. His main competition is Senator Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack), a firebrand who is ready, willing, and able to play as dirty as is necessary in order to win.
Although not as acerbic and darkly cynical as one might expect, The Best Man is a well-acted, splendidly paced, thoroughly entertaining evening of theater and politics. Built for a star-studded cast — past versions have featured such stalwarts as Melvyn Douglas and Frank Lovejoy in the original 1960 production, Elizabeth Ashley, Charles Durning, Christine Ebersole, Spalding Gray, and Chris Noth in the 2000 revival, and Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Ann Sothern, and Shelley Berman in the 1964 film — the 2012 edition too is jam-packed with big names. In addition to Emmy and Tony winner Larroquette and Emmy winner McCormack, the show boasts five-time Tony winner Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, who controls the female vote and so is courted by Alice Russell (a wry Candice Bergen, who also teamed up with Larroquette on Boston Legal) and Mabel Cantwell (a bubbly Kerry Butler); an appropriately blustery James Earl Jones, who played the first black president in the 1972 film The Man, as former president Arthur Hockstader, whose endorsement both candidates are after; Grammy winner and Oscar nominee Michael McKean as Russell’s press secretary, Dick Jensen; and Tony winner Jefferson Mays, who is wonderfully jumpy as Sheldon Marcus, a quirky man who claims to have some interesting information about Cantwell’s past. Director Michael Wilson and set designer Derek McLane have turned the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre into a bustling convention, with banners hanging from the rafters and old-fashioned black-and-white monitors following the action inside the main hall as the backroom wheeling and dealing unfolds onstage in Cantwell’s and Russell’s hotel rooms. And at a mere two and a half hours with two intermissions, The Best Man goes down a lot more easily than the ridiculously prolonged campaigns and conventions of the current era. (On Monday, April 30, at 8:00, Jones, Larroquette, McCormack, McKean, Mays, and Wilson will convene at the 92nd St. Y for a panel discussion moderated by Caryn James about the play and the state of contemporary American politics.)