I do not enjoy politics because the times may change but the rhetoric does not. It always seems to me to be a world that never truly evolves. Gore Vidal's The Best Man, despite being written in 1960, helps illustrate how that is true. The questions of morals and mudslinging in politics and even what makes a good politician seem to be as true today as they were then.
In a production directed by Michael Wilson, two political candidates are neck and neck vying for the party's nomination. Former Secretary of State William Russell (John Larroquette) is the senior politician and statesman. He drags his wife Alice (Candice Bergen) along to the convention and if he is nominated she'll stick around, but if he's not he can have his bimbos and she'll leave him. His competitor, is young Senator Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack). A Southern-fried, smooth operator who is all double-speak and no platform, and he's gaining in popularity because of it. His chipper wife, Mabel (Kerry Butler), is close by his side. Cantwell and Russell are both vying for the endorsement of former President Artie Hockstader (James Earl Jones) and the support of the Chairman of the Women's Division, Sue-Ellen Grandage (Angela Lansbury). As the convention heats up, Cantwell prepares to throw some personal mud at Russell. Russell must decide if he will do the same.
Perhaps it was the fact that the play brings together actors known for their TV comedy work, but The Best Man had a sitcom vibe to it. It is political satire that is smart, but not too smart. It dangles enough anti-politician snark to please the audience and even if there were some serious moments, it feels rather frothy as it goes. It is a two and half hour play with two intermissions but it is bubbly enough you won't notice. That is not to say I recommend it. It was a pleasant diversion but much like a sitcom it did not feel substantial in the end. Audiences will leave with the self-satisfaction that politicians are generally immoral jerks and true character in politics is rare--but I am pretty sure they felt that way when they arrived.
That said, Dan Larroquette is a pleasure to watch on stage. He seemed well-suited to play the role of a man of honor in some aspects of his life but not others. I wished Candice Bergen was as feisty as she used to be. Her role could have had a bit more bite. She seemed to be holding back in it. Angela Lansbury brings her brand of lady-like sass to the proceedings. She lights up the stage when she is on it. James Earl Jones was mostly bluster but I appreciated when things got a bit more serious he brought the gravitas. I mean there is no better gravitas than the Vader-kind. Michael McKean was wasted in a small role. Please cast him in a lead again soon. I loved him in Superior Donuts! Eric McCormack plays slick just fine but seems to have a lot of acting tics that I found distracting (mainly because they were reminiscent of his famous television role). His accent however was atrocious. Kerry Butler was a strange little chipmunk in this role. She was excitable, shrill and grotesque. That seemed to be the direction she was given but it felt a little off. And as always Jefferson Mays shows up and blows everyone away with a small role that was thoroughly rich and dynamic. Love him!
What the play lacks in depth, it makes up for in heavy-hitters on stage. For some that might be enough to make it worth checking out.