An unscrupulous, sanctimonious snake vying for his party’s presidential nomination, Senator Joseph Cantwell seems like an uncanny imitation of Rick Santorum, especially as played by Eric McCormack.
That’s weird because Cantwell was a figment of Gore Vidal’s fevered imagination more than half a century ago.
“The Best Man” is set during a national political convention in Philadelphia in 1960. No party is named. One of the contenders for the nomination is Cantwell, who makes a religion of Red-baiting, homophobia and the values of true Americans according to his definition of true.
McCormack’s Cantwell has the nervy edge of a vaguely psychotic bantam-weight boxer, bobbing around the ring with something to prove.
His opponent is William Russell (the affable John Larroquette), a former senator and secretary of state, a man of breeding, taste and scruple, except insofar as women are concerned. That has led to a frosty marriage to Alice (Candice Bergen, playing exactly the woman we hoped Murphy Brown would have grown up to be).
Two powerful party elders dog the efforts of both would-be candidates. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, chairman of the “Women’s Division” is played with jolly antiquity by Angela Lansbury. Former President Arthur Hockstader, whose illness has not dampened his raffish charm, is played commandingly by James Earl Jones.
That both of these great stars are somewhat miscast (and Jones was doing battle with some of his lines at a critics’ preview) mattered little to the demonstrative audience (or to me). Jefferson Mays makes a late appearance as a shadow from Cantwell’s past and just about steals the show.
The subject makes rich prey for Vidal’s Shavian thrusts and parries. “The Best Man” packs a full quiver of barbs and other intellectual weaponry. He was writing at the height of Kennedy-versus-Nixon. While Larroquette has many qualities as a comic actor, Kennedy suavity and prep-school burnishing are not his forte. His charm is not effortless.
Similarly, Kerry Butler as Cantwell’s Southern deb wife is so over-the-top into caricature that she offers nothing to ground a role that needs it.
Michael Wilson’s staging establishes the door-swinging pace of farce that nevertheless allows us to savor each riposte. Set designer Derek McLane has turned the theater into a bannered convention hall, aptly lit like a TV circus by Kenneth Posner, while providing an old-world elegant series of hotel rooms for the candidates.
Ann Roth’s costumes are, as always, brilliant subtle comments on the people wearing them. Note especially Cantwell’s sharkskin suit and Gamadge’s dowdy chiffon florals that practically reek of My Sin by Lanvin.
It’s not nostalgia that keeps us laughing at “The Best Man.” It’s the stunning currency of it all.
At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: **1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)