The Best Man
Written more than 50 years ago, Gore Vidal's barbed political satire remains stunningly current.
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre New York
Sometimes life really does imitate art, said Jeremy Gerard in Bloomberg.com. While watching this barbed political satire, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Sen. Joseph Cantwell, an outwardly pious presidential candidate, is a caricature of Rick Santorum—after all, he “makes a religion” of defending the true American values “according to his definition of true.” But Cantwell, played with slick ruthlessness by Eric McCormack, actually sprang from Gore Vidal’s “fevered imagination” more than half a century ago, “at the height of Kennedy-versus-Nixon.” Less surprising is that Cantwell’s Democratic opponent, William Russell, is far more morally scrupulous, “except insofar as women are concerned.” Yet amid this revival’s rapid plot swings, it’s hard not to be wowed by “the stunning currency of it all.”
More like “a thin veneer” of currency, said Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. The election landscape has changed radically since 1960, and the poisonous trends that worried Vidal are now “confirmed facts of political life.” Most of the show’s all-star cast can’t be faulted. John Larroquette’s Russell is dull, but Angela Lansbury, playing a steely party operative, “makes every moment of her stage time count”—as does James Earl Jones. Even though Jones is an odd choice to play an ex-president in the pre-civil-rights era, the actor “digs into his role with a relish you can surely sense from the back row.” It’s just too bad that the larger story “feels like a civics lesson from a long out-of-date textbook.”
But Vidal wasn’t aiming for realism, said Elysa Gardner in USA Today. The Best Man is more “bittersweet fantasy” than satire, with Russell representing the leader “we don’t deserve and could never have.” When Cantwell tars Russell for being a onetime mental patient, we know full well that Russell’s refusal to reveal Cantwell as a closeted homosexual will lead to his defeat; American politics has always been that way. Though the best man rarely wins elections, the cast of this Best Man carries the day by giving Vidal’s complaints a “winningly dry, light touch.”