PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Gore Vidal's The Best Man Pins the Tale
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Gore Vidal's The Best Man.
Producer Jeffrey Richards' political contribution to Broadway every dozen years — a starry and striped revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man — is amongst us again, bowing at the Schoenfeld on April's Fool Day. A coincidence, that date? I think not.
At 52, this comedy is now a quaint period-piece, harkening a little sadly back to a bygone day when contenders collided in backrooms to hammer out a winning ticket.
"I think it's important you keep it in the time when these conventions were still nominating conventions because what's happened in the ensuing years is that they're mostly ratifying events," reasoned Michael Wilson, the director in charge here of resurrecting this lost (or profoundly mislaid) American tradition. "The candidates have been chosen, and the network-televised convention has a way of publicizing their parties' platform, but back in 1960 you could go into a convention and not know who the nominee was. That was true when Nixon and Johnson were duking it out for the nomination. Even at that convention, Eleanor Roosevelt stood up and wanted them to select Adlai Stevenson. So I think it's very important you don't move the play out of its time because you can't say that's what happens today. Even if Rick Santorum goes all the way to Tampa, it will be the exception to the rule now that there are no longer nominating conventions."
Irrevocably then, the setting is the City of Brotherly Love on a bad week — the 1960 Presidential Convention. Back then, Vidal did not have to go outside one political party to find a conservative, a moderate and a liberal with Presidential delusions. Now you don't have to go outside Mitt Romney, but that's another story.
In this particular head-wrestle to the White House, we have two front-runners: Secretary of State William Russell (John Larroquette), an Adlai-like intellectual too smart for the average man and estranged from his politically dutiful wife (Candice Bergen) Vs. Senator Joe Cantwell (Eric McCormack), a young Turk with ambition-in-overdrive and an un-brainy beauty of a wife (Kerry Butler). Russell knows what's right; Cantwell knows what works. Off in the distance is the alternative, a dark horse raring to go at a moment's notice.
The first people cast in this play and the first people on the marquee have less focal roles than the four above, but they were first in the hearts of their countrymen in attendance, and they were amply rewarded, coming and going, with applause.
Angela Lansbury, who has a famous history in films of making much of little, fills to the brim the smallish role of a widowed political warhorse — Sue-Ellen Gamadge, Chairman of the Women's Division — and leaves you wanting more. Cane in tow and splashily attired, she dispenses advice to potential First Ladies, fairly twittering with character-commenting tricks and wit while she does it.
"It's one of those great roles — you can just take it away," she beamed later, after swiping her every second on stage. She even seasoned the character with some Lone Star twang: "I'm very fond of Texans. I can take their way of speaking to my heart."
Lansbury doesn't linger long (dammit!). Then the heavyweight scene-stealer comes to roost in the best-written character in the play: "Artie" Hockstader, a former President at the convention to king-make the next one before he croaks.
Lee Tracy made a memorable "last hurrah" of this role, winning Tony and Oscar nominations. James Earl Jones just has a field day with it, lumbering around the ritzy hotel rooms, dispensing his rough logic to both contenders, refereeing when he has to, offering a glimpse of what kind of man the job requires.
"In a way, Angela's character, Mrs. Gamadge, and my character, Hockstader, are both shepherds to the party," he said. "They're both old, and they're the shepherds, she for the women, me for the men, trying to keep them in line and get the best out of the party. I love the play, and I love this company. I had a lovely time." Yes, he heard the exit applause. "If you do a Jackie Gleason exit, you'll get some kind of response."
But the other applause accorded him and Lansbury were for jobs well done, maybe even the best ever done. Dakin Matthews as a senatorial windbag, got some, too.
Sobered up and flying straight from his Emmy-winning inebriated-lawyer days on "Night Court," Larroquette makes a startling creditable contender for Oval Office duties. "I think the play is pertinent to what's going on," he pointed out. "It shows real people doing real things. Also, quite honestly, to be on a stage and be able to chop wood with James Earl Jones was certainly worth showing up for."
The intelligence that pervades his voice is an added Presidential plus, and it always seems to know where the joke is. "I think, with this play, it's important to keep the humor alive in it. There's a lot of humor in Gore's words." His character's way out of the corner he has painted himself into may win a majority of the audience's vote — but, he said, not everyone's: "Jack Kennedy, when he read this, looked at Gore Vidal and said, 'No politician would have done what William Russell did.'"
Director Wilson said Vidal deliberately didn't specify a particular political party, but the roots are easy to spot: "Gore wrote it to be either of the parties, but he was definitely basing this on the Democratic Party. Hockstader is a kind of Harry Truman, and James drew some inspiration from Truman. Gore is up-front about it: He wrote the play because he was so worried in that time of 1960 — he started writing the play in 1959 — that people mistrusted intellectuals in politics and that Jack Kennedy was too smart to be elected president, so he wrote this play to put forth the idea that a candidate that leads with reflection could be the best leader for our country."
The political drama on stage spills into the theatre, up the aisles into the lobby and out to the sidewalk, with set designer Derek McLane canvassing the area in red, white and blue bunting as befits a political convention. Even a box has been commandeered for the occasion for bulletins and commentary by John Malcolm (Sherman Howard). Where did his new copy come from, Wilson was asked?
"Gore and I had a wonderful time, poring through his various drafts of the play — the 1960 production, the 1987 L.A. production, of course the 2000 production and material he had prepared for the 1964 movie — and that helped flesh out the material added to the TV screens," he answered. "In the 2000 production, Walter Cronkite did some of that text as a voiceover. We decided, because we wanted to make the presence of TV even more prominent in this production, we decided to make him a flesh-and-blood character, not just a voice, and so Gore had a lot of material he had written for the new commentator that we pieced together. He gave him the name 'John Malcolm,' a favorite poet of his and a little inside joke for us."
Directing this company was as close to heaven as Wilson has come, he said. Jones, who, like a true leader, leads the cast in exercises before the show, "is one of the most insatiably curious actors I've ever worked with. He's always searching for the most exciting, dramatic, human idea of a scene. He'll try anything.
"John Larroquette is always probing the deep inner truths of a part and won't be satisfied until he breaks through with the most compelling idea of a scene.
"Angela lights up a rehearsal room, and she is always ready to light up a scene with delightfully insightful revelations about character. She resolutely played a woman who was married to the party. Everything took a backseat to the party, including her late husband. The party was the most important thing, and to this day we still have those people. In fact, the Republican people would probably be a lot better off right now if they had more Sue-Ellen Gamadges who put the party first and set up some of the crazy ideas marching around Santorum and Romney."
"Gore is in California," noted producer Richards. "He was here for the first week of rehearsal. I've called him every other day to keep him informed about what's going on. He's very thrilled. We put his face on the monitors and saluted him at the end."
Fresh from Bengal Tiger (a particularly apt training ground for Cantwell's campaign manager), Corey Brill snarled out such obnoxious, insensitive remarks people would leave the room. "I love it!" he declared. "Every day, going into the theatre, it's amazing. I get to work with some of the finest actors working today." They must just be a little slow in going out for coffee with him. Contrasting the easy assurance and intelligence of Bergen's campaign wife is the speaks-before-she-thinks airhead that Kerry Butler pertly puts out there as Joe's ever-lovin' wife. "Some people may say she's a villain, but I think she has all good intentions, and she's only thinking what's best for the country," which in her limited view would be her husband. It's a lively, nuanced performance, and she passed credit along to "our dialect coach, Kate Wilson, who helps me find a lot of subtleties in the accents and stuff that I didn't know before."
At the elegant but fiercely cramped after-party held at Brassiere 8½ on 57th Street, she was easily the most scrumptiously be-gowned goddess on the premises — the work of haut couture designer Randi Rahm. With the noted exception of Angelica Page, who left a star part Off-Broadway to bring a sharp shapeliness to a super-efficient campaign aide, she had the dazzling field to herself.
"I loved it, just as it was," was the extent of bold criticism one could extract from the director's beaming mom, who had just flown in from Winston-Salem, NC, "the land of Rosemary Harris," to catch her son's fourth Broadway opening (Old Acquaintance, Enchanted April and Dividing the Estate).
The first-night audience who turned out for this all-star enterprise looked appropriately like a mini-version "Night of 100 Stars" that Alexander Cohen used to throw: Stacy Keach from Other Desert Cities and Harris Yulin ("We were both with James Earl in 'End of the Road.'"), Jane Alexander (Jones' Tony-winning co-star in The Great White Hope and now The Lady From Dubuque), Grant Shaud from "Murphy Brown," Michael Learned and Mark Blum (who played the Candice Bergen and Michael McKean roles in the previous Best Man revival), Annette O'Toole (Mrs. Michael McKean), Dee Hoty (back from Big D where she just world-premiered Michael John LaChiusa's Giant), Frances Sternhagen (accompanied by son John Carlin, there to see son Tom do Hotel Security and understudy up a storm), Matthew Modine (in a bandana, apparently as a liberal), Judith Light from Other Desert Cities next door at the Booth and Norm Lewis from Porgy and Bess over at the Rodgers, Ralph Lauren's offspring (Dylan and David), Cecilia Hart (Mrs. James Earl Jones), Topher Grace and Olivia Thirlby of Second Stage's upcoming Lonely, I'm Not, F. Murray Abraham, two Blanche Barrows (Melissa van der Schiff, a probable Tony contender for Bonnie and Clyde and the Oscar-winner who originated that role in the 1967 film, Estelle Parsons, currently kicking up her heels in Nice Work If You Can Get It) and a rush of politicos with vested interests: Christine Quinn, Matilda Cuomo, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and ex-Mayor Ed Koch.
Also: Bryce Pinkham, Da 'Vine Joy Randolph, Tom Cavenaugh, Megan Lawrence, Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue with Elaine May, Phillip Boykin, James Lecesne, Donna Hanover and husband Edwin A. Oster, Rachel York, Liz Mikel, Joan Rivers, Tony Lo Bianco, director Jack O'Brien, playwrights Edward Albee and Christopher Durang, Ellen Burstyn, Rob Morrow and wife Debbon Awer, Carmen Ruby Flioyd and J. Bernard Calloway, Nikki Renee Daniels, Jennifer Lim and David Henry Hwang, Gina Gershon and beau Bobby Kaiser, 59E59 producer Peter Tear and Penny Fuller, Lincoln Center's Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten, Kathleen Chalfant and producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley.
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