This is an election year, so let “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man” win for dirtiest political convention in half a century. The fiercely fought 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign was Gore Vidal’s inspiration for this vituperative drama about the wheeling and dealing and stealing driving the national convention of an unnamed political party. Far from being dated, this profoundly cynical play could be the universal blueprint for any political election, especially in Michael Wilson’s classy production toplined by James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Eric McCormack, Angela Lansbury and other thesps to die for.
The savvy production designers have transformed the theater auditorium into an approximation of a convention hall in Philadelphia by hanging flag bunting from the balcony, installing TV newscasters and their clunky equipment in the boxes, and piping in the canned roars of the thousand or more delegates on the floor. (Kudos to John Gromada for that.)
The tension is more contained, but no less fierce on Derek McLane’s set, where the action ping-pongs between the generic hotel suites of former Secretary of State William Russell (John Larroquette) and Sen. Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack), the frontrunners to carry their party’s banner in the fall election.
Larroquette, a Tony winner for his droll musical turn in last year’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” displays the same understated wit here. Russell is the very model of the idealistic patrician politician — well born, well educated, deeply thoughtful and fatally honest. Vidal supposedly based this noble character on poor, doomed Adlai Stevenson, but feel free to think of John Kerry or George McGovern, or even John Adams.
Cantwell, an attractive devil in McCormack’s tooth-and-nail perf, is Russell’s mirror image, a phoney populist, ruthlessly ambitious and totally without scruple. Given today’s political climate, Vidal’s Nixonian model is not the only person who comes to mind here.
The well-built plot places both candidates in hot competition for the endorsement of former President Arthur “Artie” Hockstader (James Earl Jones). An old-fashioned statesman from the give-’em-hell tradition of Harry Truman, this folksy old fox is delighted when Cantwell threatens to go public about Russell’s nervous breakdown and when Russell gives serious thought to flinging some mud back at Cantwell.
“I feel wonderful!” says Hockstader, who is old and sick (dying, actually, of “cancer of the innards”) but energized by these cheap tactics: “I tell you,” he says, “there is nothing like a dirty low-down political fight to put the roses in your cheeks.”
Jones played it nice and sweet in last year’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” but this role gives him a chance to stomp around and roar. And what a grand sight it is when this powerful thesp flashes that meat-eating grin and bites into Vidal’s juicy lines about the bloody game of politics. “Power is not a toy we give to good children,” he thunders. “It is a weapon; and the strong man takes it and he uses it.” And whoever is too pure to use that power, he makes it clear, “got no business in this big league.”
If anyone’s having as much fun up there as Jones, it might be Lansbury, all fluffed up in Ann Roth’s confectionary costumes and playing Sue-Ellen Gamadge, a Southern power broker who wields the women’s vote like a hatchet over the heads of both candidates.
Nobody can deliver a veiled threat quite like Lansbury, with her sweet-talking promises and utterly lethal smiles. Her scenes with the candidates’ anxious wives are sheer heaven. Candice Bergen is appropriately refined and just a little bit saucy as the womanizing Russell’s sadly neglected wife, and Kerry Butler tears into her killer role as Cantwell’s Lady Macbeth of a wife. But when Lansbury lectures them on what women like and don’t like in a First Lady, we know who’s boss here.
Vidal stuffed his cast with office holders, party brokers, up-and-coming players and collective party hacks, along with the press whores hounding them all. Some of them, like Dakin Matthews as a party faithful who loses faith with his candidate, hold their own in the ensemble. And some of them get lost. But for a cast of thousands, everyone plays pretty well together.