Theater: Best Man Squeaks Out Win; Now. Here. This. Scattered

GORE VIDAL'S THE BEST MAN ** 1/2 out of ****
NOW. HERE. THIS. * 1/2 out of ****

The Best Man is set primarily in hotel rooms at a brokered convention in Philadelphia in 1960. As the scenes shift from the hotel room of one candidate to that of another -- along with hallways and press conferences -- the sets by Derek McLane move with a stately, unhurried ease. Effective and professional, they go about their business in full view of the audience. We can see them working, watch the panels move into place, observe chairs and couches shift here and there, all of it clicking into place. Knowing how it all fits together may even be half the fun.

The same might be said for Gore Vidal's blackly humorous drama. It manages to sound quite contemporary and up-to-date (one candidate may be closeted, the other is a philanderer) while at heart being thoroughly old-fashioned, right down to its stodgy three act structure. Something more lacerating and timeless about political power and the needs of the country could be fashioned from this material, perhaps. But with this starry cast and the smooth professionalism on display, what you get is more comforting than challenging.

John Larroquette stars as Bill Russell, the liberal candidate who served as the Secretary of State for former President Artie Hockstader (James Earl Jones). Bill cheats on his wife (Candice Bergen) but no one really cares about that. It's the mental breakdown he had a few years ago that is the real dirt and his conservative opponent (Eric McCormack) has snagged the files and is pressuring Russell to drop out so he can be the party's nominee. When Russell gets information that McCormack's Cantwell may be a homosexual (despite his curvy young wife Kerry Butler) the play's central dilemma is set: is Russell willing to play dirty to get the nomination or will he stick to his principles and see the country saddled with a hypocrite whose policies Russell abhors?

Director Michael Wilson (who unfortunately was not able to bring his marvelous Orphan's Home Cycle to Broadway) delivers a smooth evening of entertainment, though one that doesn't linger in the mind. Larroquette proved his Broadway bona fides in the very good musical revival How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Like David Hyde Pierce, he looks set to turn his TV stardom into a substantial second life on Broadway and we're the luckier for it. Vidal's dialogue has snap to it and Larroquette makes the most of it, without ever resorting to the rat-a-tat rhythm of the sitcom. Similarly, McCormack is solid in his work as the less likable Cantwell. We're clearly rooting for Russell but one of the strengths of the play is that this isn't a case of good versus evil, as such. It's quite possible that Cantwell's ruthlessness makes him the better candidate and the better President, as Hockstader believes at one point. If Russell won't do everything in his power to defeat Cantwell, how's he going to face down the Ruskies?

In secondary roles, Jones and Angela Lansbury (as a power broker at the convention who is focused on the female vote) bring ample star wattage. Lansbury has fun in her showcased part and Jones barks out his lines with practiced ease. He may have lost a line on the night I saw, but playing an ailing former President, Jones was able to work the hemming and hawing of a brief moment right into his performance. Butler has drawling fun as the silly but viperish wife of Cantwell, Michael McKean is smooth support as a campaign manager, Jefferson Mays is amusing and weasely in a small turn and Bergen allows herself to look as dowdy as possible to contrast her no-nonsense character with Butler. In general, the costumes for the women by Ann Roth are not terribly flattering, intentionally so in Bergen's case but also true for Lansbury who has an afternoon tea outfit gone wild on in the third act.

But with talent like that on board and a script that feels relevant, one hopes for more than just easy laughs and a pleasant evening of theater. It might win your vote (and your precious play-going dollars) opposite lesser competition. But is it a show you'll feel passionate about and go door to door urging friends and neighbors to support it? No. For the best candidate, you'll have to search elsewhere.

In this new work by the team behind [title of show], the four genial stars of that work are inspired by the words of monk and author Thomas Merton. They want to stay "present" and use his catch phrase "Now. Here. This." to do so. This somehow leads them to a daytrip at the Museum of Natural History where they wander the exhibits, make jokes ("I wonder if turtles would eat chocolate turtles?") and in a rather scattered way remember painful episodes from their childhood and adult life.

In short, they do everything but stay in the moment, nor do they particularly relive scenes from their lives where they would have benefitted from staying in the moment or learn what was lost by not staying in the moment. They simply fill up the evening with personal anecdotes of a therapeutic nature and lazy pop culture references like the Members Only jacket and Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. Instead of Now. Here. This. the show should be titled Then. There. That.

The gang is so friendly and earnest you feel a little bad badmouthing their work. But what can you do? The show takes forever to set up its premise about staying in the moment and then by and large ignores it. The setting of the Museum of Natural History is random, as is most of what we're told. Jeff Bowen tells us about being closeted as a kid and how he coped by being the class clown, dating a girl with an over-protective dad and so on. Does that have anything to do with the premise of the show? Not really.

Heidi Blickenstaff (all the actors play characters named after themselves and the implication is that the stories are lightly fictionalized, if at all) says she came from money but she'd trade all her wealth and advantage if only her dad would not be so reserved and tell her verbally that he loves her. "I love you, " she announces proudly at one point, "breaking" the unspoken contract about not getting emotional and intimate in her family. I'm glad for her but in a snarky moment afterwards felt like she should have been paying the audience for the therapy session rather than the other way around.

Hunter Bell recites an embarrassing story of being caught masturbating by his father (luckily his father didn't know at the time that Hunter was usually thinking about Captain Kirk or the awkwardness might have tripled). It's funny but again, has precious little to do with what we're constantly told is the show's theme -- staying in the moment.

Susan Blackwell -- in another scene that feels like emotional shorthand for pain -- is shamed when the mother of a fellow student comes by her house and realizes that Susan's folks are hoarders to a shocking, embarrassing degree.

All these tales come at you randomly. For a while they seem to be chronological but just when you think we're moving towards the present the stories jump back to early school days. Without some sort of structure, the randomness of the memories -- however individually interesting -- become exhausting.

A few passages stick out -- notably a scene where they reminisce about saying goodbye to a dying grandparent, a scene that actually seems to reflect on the benefit of being present in the moment and knowing this is a special, sad event. Similarly, a song about being seasick actually includes an insight on how to overcome that by focusing on the ocean and what's happening around you.

Others are less pointed, if still effective. The riff on Tootsie -- which is indeed one of the best comedies of all time -- is wittily done. Though again, it's introduced by the fact that they often pretend to love "serious" work like Citizen Kane but in fact prefer lowbrow works. That has nothing to do with staying present; that has to do with self-confidence and an ability to recognize that not all great art comes from "serious" work. (Though Citizen Kane is damn entertaining.)

I didn't get a chance to see [title of show], unfortunately. The songs here by Bowen have a line by line cleverness, but none of the tunes have memorable melodies and they soon blur together. The direction and choreography by MIchael Berresse is solid; he keeps things moving neatly and the changes in scenes and time are always quickly grasped. All the other tech elements are strong, especially the projection design by Richard DiBella. It all works to give the team an ideal framework in which to present their ideas.

Ultimately, of course, it's to no avail. The best way to make a theater audience be "present," to stay in the moment, is to create a strong piece of theater. Suddenly, no one is coughing or texting or thinking about what they're going to have for dinner. They are focused entirely on what is happening on stage. In Now. Here. This., those moments are very few and very far between.

The Theater Season 2011-2012 (on a four-star scale)

The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs ** 1/2
All-American **
All's Well That Ends Well/Shakespeare in the Park **
Assistance **
The Atmosphere Of Memory 1/2 *
Blood Knot at Signature **
Bob *** 1/2
Bonnie & Clyde feature profile of Jeremy Jordan
Broadway By The Year: 1950 ** 1/2
Broadway By The Year: 1997 ** 1/2
Carrie ** 1/2
The Cherry Orchard with Dianne Wiest **
Chinglish * 1/2
Close Up Space *
Crane Story **
Cymbeline at Barrow Street Theatre ***
Damn Yankees **
Death Of A Salesman with Philip Seymour Hoffman ** 1/2
Dedalus Lounge * 1/2
Early Plays (Eugene O'Neill at St. Ann's Warehouse) *
Ernani at Met w Angela Meade *** 1/2
An Evening With Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin ***
Follies *** 1/2
Fragments ***
Galileo with F. Murray Abraham **
The Gershwins' Porgy And Bess *** 1/2
Godspell ** 1/2
Goodbar * 1/2
Gore Vidal's The Best Man ** 1/2
Hair ***
Hand To God ***
Hero: The Musical * 1/2
How The World Began * 1/2
Hugh Jackman: Back On Broadway ***
Hurt Village ***
Irving Berlin's White Christmas ***
It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later *** 1/2
Jesus Christ Superstar * 1/2
King Lear at Public with Sam Waterston **
Krapp's Last Tape with John Hurt ***
The Lady From Dubuque ** 1/2
Lake Water **
Leo ***
Love's Labor's Lost at the PublicLab ** 1/2
Lysistrata Jones *
The Maids **
Man And Boy * 1/2
The Man Who Came To Dinner **
Maple And Vine **
Master Class w Tyne Daly ** 1/2
Measure For Measure/Shakespeare in the Park ***
Milk Like Sugar ***
Mission Drift * 1/2
Misterman ** 1/2
The Mountaintop ** 1/2
Newsies **
No Place To Go ** 1/2
Now. Here. This. * 1/2
Painting Churches * 1/2
Pigpen's The Nightmare Story *** 1/2
Once *** 1/2
Once on Broadway ****
Olive and The Bitter Herbs ** 1/2
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever * 1/2
One Arm ***
Other Desert Cities on Broadway ** 1/2
Private Lives **
Queen Of The Mist ** 1/2
Radio City Christmas Spectacular ** 1/2
Regrets * 1/2
Relatively Speaking * 1/2
Richard III w Kevin Spacey at BAM ***
The Road To Mecca ** 1/2
Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History Of The Robot War ** 1/2
The Select (The Sun Also Rises) ** 1/2
Seminar **
Septimus & Clarissa *** 1/2
Shlemiel The First ** 1/2
Silence! The Musical * 1/2
69 Degrees South * 1/2
Song From The Uproar **
Sons Of The Prophet *** 1/2
Sontag: Reborn *
Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark * 1/2
Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays **
Stick Fly **
The Submission **
Super Night Shot ** 1/2
Sweet and Sad **
The Table ** 1/2
Titus Andronicus at Public with Jay O. Sanders * 1/2
Tribes *** 1/2
The Ugly One **
Unnatural Acts ***
Venus In Fur ***
We Live Here **
Wild Animals You Should Know ** 1/2
Wit ** 1/2
Zarkana **



Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.

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