WHAT "Gore Vidal's The Best Man"
WHERE Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 w. 45th St.
BOTTOM LINE Politically savvy, joyfully star-encrusted revival
Modern political junkies and anyone craving a fix of old-time theater thrills should find it hard to resist "Gore Vidal's The Best Man."
The three-act structure of Vidal's 1960 campaign melodrama is a bit creaky. But everything else about this joyfully shrewd star-encrusted revival -- including, for starters, the untouchable James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury, plus a deeply touching Candice Bergen and an astonishing John Larroquette -- feels as pertinent and as boldly impertinent as the daily machinations in our latest mud-fight to the White House.
Do not confuse this with the misdirected revival that the same producer brought to Broadway before the 2000 election. This time, Vidal's witty and eerily up-to-the-minute lesson in civic disillusion has been directed with grand sweep and attention to psychological detail by Michael Wilson. And the cast, well, just lean back and enjoy the fine-point landing of phrases, the sardonic timing, the ways that pros make listening as active an art as showing off.
We are at a convention in Philadelphia in the days when nominees weren't crowned during primaries. It could be either political party. Bunting is swagged around the theater, designed by Derek McLane with banks of '60s TV screens, a TV anchor reporting from one of the boxes and hotel suites on turntables to whisk us to feverish meetings with rival candidates.
In one room is Larroquette, commanding as the womanizing liberal intellectual -- and perhaps too thoughtful -- candidate. In the other suite are the savvy Eric McCormack as his younger, ruthless competition and his equally savvy sex-bomb wife (Kerry Butler).
Jones is both subtle and magnificent as the folksy ex-president, a power broker who works his endorsement like a high-priced tease. Lansbury is irresistibly cunning as the gorgon chair of the women's division who declares "We women like . . ." and "We women don't like . . ." with all the ladylike delivery of a threat.
Bergen is heartbreaking as Larroquette's long-suffering wife, shy but nobody's fool, with Michael McKean as his smart press secretary and Jefferson Mays as the squealer in the mouse-brown suit. (Perfect costumes are by Ann Roth.)
Fifty-two years ago, just before the Kennedy election, Vidal wrote about smears of gays and mental illness, pious hot-potatoes about Darwin and contraceptives, poster wives and image-mongering and screwing around in the White House. Funny how the same nasty old politics still make gripping theater.