Gore Vidal’s The Best Man may have been a scathing indictment of American politics when it premiered in 1960, but compared to today’s climate it just feels cute. In Philadelphia, two presidential candidates vie for their party’s nomination: the erudite and earnest if indecisive and personally flawed Secretary of State Bill Russell (John Larroquette) and Senator Joseph Cantwell (John Stamos), a ruthless powermonger with an impeccable private life. Their differences, so clear, are even marked in the pictures hanging in their hotel rooms: Russell has two framed portraits of Washington and Lincoln—boring but correct—while Cantwell has a print of the patriotic but historically inaccurate Washington Crossing the Delaware. In the middle of these candidates is Former President Arthur Hockstader (James Earl Jones), a straight-shooting, self-identified hick in the model of William Jennings Bryan who has yet to announce his endorsement.
Towards the end of the play, Russell jokes that he is the Angel of Light and Cantwell the Angel of Darkness, and this is the central problem of The Best Man—the characters are far too broadly drawn. Earlier, he balks at the “small corruptions” that are necessary for his nomination, which suggests a naiveté and idealism that outdoes even Aaron Sorkin’s. (At least Bartlet was a liar.) Surely, no man who had previously served as Secretary of State could believe in that kind of political purity. Cantwell, too, is a caricature of the opportunist, willing to follow the Gallup polls before his own conscience; he wants to be president for the same reason a kindergartener wants to be president (because it is the most important job in the country) but knows little of what the office entails beyond its ostensible power. The landscape seems to be drawn more from ‘thirties Westerns—where the good guys wear white hats and the bad guys wear black—than from contemporary headlines. It is quite a bit less than we would expect from Mr. Vidal, normally so savvy a writer.
These reservations aside, The Best Man is an enjoyable show. The Schoenfeld Theatre is wallpapered with posters, the ushers wear candidates’ pins and American flag hats, and a newsman (Sherman Howard) occasionally occupies the left balcony to announce the progression of the convention, giving us a genuine sense of being in the middle of everything. Mr. Jones, too, is stellar as Hockstader, gleefully watching everybody squirm as he gets a little taste of the political life he has left behind. Surely there is nothing more delightful than that man’s basso giggle. Mr. Larroquette and Mr. Stamos, given less meaty roles, manage admirably, though Cybil Shepherd, playing Russell’s wife Alice, is sorely miscast. In both Taxi Driver and The Heartbreak Kid, she played bland beauties whose more interesting qualities were projected onto her by obsessive men. Here, without a de Niro or a Grodin to idolize her, she is just bland, offering a teleprompter delivery that works only to interrupt the play’s momentum and verisimilitude.
Still, The Best Man is fun and it goes down easy. Anyone expecting political fluff and (mostly) charming performances will not be disappointed.