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Thursday, May 3, 2012

REVIEW: The Best Man

Review of the April 21 matinee performance at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York City.  Starring John Larroquette, Eric McCormack, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Candace Bergen, Michael McKean, Kerry Butler and Jefferson Mays.  Directed by Michael Wilson. 2 hours, 40 minutes, including two intermissions.


Grade: A


Let me admit up front that I am not particularly political.  Don't get me wrong - I vote and I follow enough to know what is going on before an election.  But the divisiveness and the unrelated crap that goes on behind the scenes so that nothing gets done in most political situations disgusts me and angers me.  Consequently, I usually avoid plays and films with overtly political themes. But I had to make an exception when they announced the all-star cast of the political play, Gore Vidal's The Best Man.  As it turns out, while the cast is the big draw here, the play itself is a surprising mix of comedy and thought-provoking relevancy.  Not bad for a play that is more than half a century old, and is presented as a straight forward, un-modernized edition (heck, it even has a very old school TWO intermissions!).

Walking into the theatre, you are immediately transported back to 1960 and the Philadelphia Presidential Convention.  The entire theatre is festooned with red, white and blue bunting, American flags and state name placards attached to anything that doesn't move.  The monitors, vintage relics, and a similarly vintage appointed news desk in one of the boxes tell us the time period wordlessly.  Patriotic tunes, the noise of the conventioneers, and raucous speechifying blare through the sound system before the show, during the intermissions and as you exit the theatre.  While it gets a bit wearing and really inhibits intermission discussion, it really does give you that "you are there" feeling from start to finish.


The lighting (by Kenneth Posner) and the projections (by Peter Nigrini) - films of convention coverage - show on the set as it changes - help create the illusion that we are moving to the various locales of the play, while the films remind us of the reason everyone is here, and, interestingly, are reminiscent of today's more intense, CNN/24/7/constant coverage style of media.  The set (designed by Derek McLane), which transforms into two complete hotel suites and a media staging area, is a wonder all to itself.  Adorned with moldings that are very White House-like, and cheeky portraits of celebrated moments in American history, when the new nation was at its "most moral," it is interesting to note how the two main suites reveal much about the two candidates.  The candidate with the more traditional political approach has an unseen press area that could either be part of the suite or a detached sitting area in the hallway, and receives his guests in a small living room adjacent to what appears to be a small bedroom. This is also the candidate with marital problems - he openly fools around a lot, and he and his wife no longer share a bed.  And yet a bed dominates half the set.  The other candidate, a self-absorbed, arrogant guy, has an enormous living room to greet guests in, with enormous double doors leading to an enormous, but unseen bedroom.  This is the guy to whom size matters, in all aspects of his life.  Interestingly, the "dirt" on this guy involves things of a secret sexual nature, and yet you never see his bed or beds.  Yes, the set is excellent.  Ann Roth's costumes also provide interesting insight into both the politics and character of these people.  Michael Wilson's brisk, no-frills staging keeps things moving with the urgency of a thriller, which is to the benefit of all involved.

The bit players - portraying an increasingly rabid press corps - are uniformly good.  Angelica Page and Corey Brill manage to make an impression on a star-filled stage in small roles: a campaign worker and press secretary to candidate Joe Cantwell, respectively.

Kerry Butler, left, with Eric McCormack and Angela Lansbury

John Larroquette, James Earl Jones,
Jefferson Mays and Michael McKean

Tony-winner Jefferson Mays offers up a typically intense, very detailed performance as a very nervous whistle-blower.  He makes you nervous just watching him.  Tony-nominee Kerry Butler proves to be the ensemble's weakest link.  Physically, she is the perfect showpiece bride for Cantwell, with her statuesque bearing, blonde curls and tight dresses.  She glides around the room, ever the perfect hostess, but with an undercurrent of don't-mess-with-me-or-my-husband authority.  Then she opens her mouth and speaks with a Southern drawl so thick, she is mostly unintelligible.

Candace Bergen and John Larroquette

As Bill Russell's campaign manager, Michael McKean resists the urge to be showy, and instead gives a terrific performance full of detail and nuance that gives off the feeling that he really is the glue keeping this precarious event together.  Candace Bergen is deceptively low-key as the suffering wife of the publicly philandering Russell.  This is a complex woman, who doesn't play the pity card, and outwardly, sincerely supports her husband's political ambitions.  Perhaps, because she has long since come to terms with his wandering, she is calm, but the anger is very near the surface and the hurt in her eyes betrays the calm.  Still, Bergen manages to make it believable that she'd stand by her man, by emphasizing that this woman wants and would relish all that goes with being First Lady.  She holds all of those cards and she AND he know it.  Her trademark zingers provide several laughs, and it says a lot that you really don't think of Ms. Bergen or her alter ego Murphy Brown, but of this very strong woman before you.

Of course, for me the big draw was my absolute favorite actress, five time Tony-winner and Broadway legend, Angela Lansbury.  She does not disappoint as the sharp tongued, no nonsense leader of "the Women's Division."  A strong presence, with a slow Southern drawl, a sharp eye and a deceptive coolness, Ms. Lansbury commands the stage every time she takes it.  This is a woman who has the ear of the most important men in the country, and she has no time for foolishness.  As a consequence, men quake at her feet as she dispenses wisdom and political savvy through a series of chats that come across like so much gossip at a tea party, but heed her advice or die a painful political death.  When the woman can command respect while sipping a Coke and reading a newspaper, you know you'd better be paying attention.  Ms. Lansbury is a perfect fit for a role that one wishes was much bigger!

Living legends: Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones

I had never seen the great James Earl Jones live on stage before this, and I have to say it is a real privilege to watch the man work.  Like Ms. Lansbury, he has an innate ability to lose himself in a role, command the stage and take in the audience without ever making you feel like you are watching an actor act.  A big bear of a man, he growls and curses his way through the convention as a very popular former President of the United States.  Whomever he backs will get the nomination and, likely, the office.  And so his importance is never to be under-estimated.  Mr. Jones' booming voice, large, toothy grin and natural charisma fit this role to a "T."  What a thrill.  He and Ms. Lansbury alone make this a must-see event.

Eric McCormack and John Larroqu

But, when it comes right down to it, the play centers around the two candidates, Bill Russell (Tony and Emmy-winner John Larroquette) and Joe Cantwell (Emmy-winner Eric McCormack), and these actors really deliver.  Mr. McCormack's short stature only plays into his character's insecurities and Napoleon complex.  As smooth as a snake, his Cantwell is everything you'd expect in a politician - a broad, glad-handing smile, the trophy wife, all the right answers on cue, and the rhetoric.  Oh, God, the rhetoric.  The man makes me bristle even as I type this days later.  And his behind-the-scenes behavior is even more reprehensible.  Meanwhile, despite the man being a womanizing pig, Mr. Larroquette's Russell is much more in keeping with what politics should be.  He wants to run a (mostly) clean campaign, is willing to cut his wife loose for her sake more so than his, and uses his intelligence to make points, not rhetoric so much.  His folksy charm and low-key charisma comes shining through in a way that shows you how he gets so many women into bed, but also why you probably don't care and will vote for him anyway. It is only when he is backed into a corner that he comes out fighting.  As you might guess, each guy has dirt on the other.  Enough dirt to destroy the other's chances.  But as one struggles to do what is right on a human level, the other struggles to do what is right for himself .  And as they both jockey for position, you find yourself going back and forth on who is "more right."  Watching these two actors circle each other like a pair of boxers in the ring is one of the best theatrical showdowns of the season. (I have to say that I'm disappointed that Mr. Larroquette was not recognized by the Tony committee for his work here.)

Though the "dirt" is, by today's ugly standards, almost quaint, the power struggle and dog-eat-dog mentality of the American political system portrayed in The Best Man is apparently timeless.  This fifty-plus year old play is as relevant today as it ever was.  The faces change, but the false promises and manipulation of the system never does.  And, despite some eloquent lip service about serving the people, the people are the last thing any of these folks think about.  I can't wait for November to be over.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)


Jeff
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