Memo to those with tickets to the Broadway revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man: don’t arrive early. Entering a theatre festooned in bunting from the good seats to the gods, you may initially relish the way that set designer Derek McLane has recreated the hall of a US political convention: in this case, the Philadelphia of July, 1960.
But after a few minutes of being pounded by patriotic hymns from loudspeakers, you may start to feel desensitised. Rest easy: after this numbing pre-curtain prologue, more stars than there were in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s heyday begin emerging on stage, and an evening of steady if not deeply satisfying pleasures awaits.
One of those luminaries, Angela Lansbury, was in fact under contract to MGM in the halcyon era. In this story of two candidates – Secretary of State William Russell and Senator Joseph Cantwell – battling it out for their unnamed party’s presidential nomination, Lansbury’s pedigree for her role as a politico are ample: she began playing politically minded power-brokers 65 years ago. Here, as Mrs Sue-Ellen Gamadge, whose base of female support is essential to securing the nomination, Lansbury at first appears rather prim. But when the subject of Russell’s philandering comes up, and when he thinks about disclosing Cantwell’s sexual secrets in retaliation for a smear, Gamadge shows herself to be a shrewd student of sexual ethics.
Exposing sexual hypocrisy has long been one of Vidal’s delights. This predilection was under way well before The Best Man premiered on Broadway in 1960, the year when the promiscuous John F Kennedy was on the presidential campaign trail. In our no-privacy age, most of the play’s palaver about sex feels rather tame, though its barbs about religion have lost little sting in the context of this year’s US presidential campaign.
Former president Arthur Hockstader, whose endorsement the candidates are seeking, says in disgust that some politicians dump religion all over everything, “like ketchup”. James Earl Jones gives Hockstader such commanding presence that each time he begins to leave, you may want to block the exit. You will be left in the company of a play that is intelligently built if not a classic, and a company of highly skilled actors, including John Larroquette, Candice Bergen and Eric McCormack, under the first-rate direction of Michael Wilson.