Thursday, May 03, 2012

Gore Vidal's "The Best Man"

I so wanted to like "The Best Man," I really did.  Ultimately, I enjoyed the evening (2 hours, 40 minutes, two intermissions), but probably because I was in a generous mood and willing to forgive its clunkiness -- which was enough to make Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers squirm in agony.

It's true, as many reviewers have pointed out, that much of the play still resonates in today's political climate -- the venality, the sucking up to power (with the non-stop nature of a Dyson vacuum), the sham marriages, the chattering class always at the door...  Plus, the cast is as star-packed as anything I've seen on Broadway:  James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Candice Bergen, John Laroquette, Eric McCormack and Michael McKean.  The problem is, only Laroquette really found a true character.  Which is fitting, since he plays William Russell, the only truly principled character in the drama.  Laroquette stands as a solid pole supporting a very big tent.

Unfortunately, the other major players don't seem to really be engaged with their roles.  Candice Bergen is too casually chilly in her role as the good candidate's wife, and Eric McCormack's southern accent wanders in and out to the point that you can't tell whether he's supposed to be from Mississippi or South Carolina or just auditioning for every role in "Steel Magnolias."  Angela Lansbury, lovable and adored as she is, simply doesn't have the power to seize the stage the way she once did.  (The fact that she is the only cast member who had to be mic'd is one good sign of that.)

"The West Wing" this is not.  Today's politics is about speed and volume and continuous news cycles.  "The Best Man" is much more linear and old-fashioned.  It's of the day when there were three networks and a handful of major papers.  Which is delightful if you're in a nostalgic mood.  But given the stakes in our current political battles, we don't need a creaky, stuffy period piece.  Battling intolerance and ignorance requires a much sharper saber than Vidal's 1960 play.  As one character says "I'd like to think intelligence is contagious -- but I'm afraid it isn't."  As the kids say, true that.

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