NEW YORK - I was on Broadway when I suddenly walked right into Center City Philadelphia. It was weird - a big banner on the stage of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre announced "PHILADELPHIA WELCOMES DELEGATES," and other signs placed us at a 1960 presidential nominating convention.
When the show started, Derek McLane's nifty rotating-wall set spun out to reveal a room in the Bellevue Stratford hotel, which looked like the real thing from five decades back, down to the moldings.
But when the cast took to the stage we were definitely on Broadway, where a revival of Gore Vidal's 1960 comedy The Best Man began to unfold with - get this for a night at the theater - James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack, Michael McKean, Angela Lansbury, Jefferson Mays, and Kerry Butler.
This big-star cast worth a wide shelf of past Tony and Emmy Awards deserves a worthwhile play - and they have one. Vidal's smart, tightly plotted story of political intrigue is not just entertaining, it's refreshing: It focuses on a decent presidential candidate who challenges the idea of ad hominem attacks on an opponent.
This politician is played winningly by Larroquette, who became well-known in TV's Night Court. His character, William Russell, is a Harvard-educated man, a liberal, and a former secretary of state who travels with a dictionary and a thirst for knowledge. Yet, he's anything but ready for a smear campaign against him. His wife, who has been quietly estranged but is now back for the campaign, is played as down-to-earth and stalwart by Bergen.
Russell's major opponent is Joseph Cantwell, a younger conservative senator for whom winning is everything. He's portrayed as an unflinching attack dog by McCormack, who made his mark as Will in TV's Will and Grace. This guy, with his cutesy, phony wife (a nice turn by Butler), is from the first TV generation and knows how to play to the cameras. After learning that his essentially decent challenger had suffered a nervous breakdown years ago, he purloins medical records to portray the man as a raving lunatic.
But Our Hero has some records, too; the big question is whether he can suppress his every ethical impulse and use them.
And so The Best Man becomes a funny and engaging play about ideas. "This is exactly the kind of thing I got into politics to stop," Larroquette's Russell says - so what's a good guy to do? Jump into the mud along with his opponent or be trounced by a smear?
It seems as though The Best Man might offer insight into presidential campaigning circa 2012, but I'm not sure what. Campaign smears, in the form of attack ads that spin the facts, are now a solid part of the election process. We've gone far beyond the candidate who believes decency alone counts, if we've ever had that candidate at all.
The former president in The Best Man, played with a wink and a hearty laugh by Jones ("I tell you there is nuthin like a dirty low political fight to put the roses in your cheeks"), is more like the person who's been girded for American politics since the Revolution - a fighter who wants sincerely to lead, but understands the compromises and accepts the petty skirmishes.
The Best Man is filled with stereotypes - they also include Lansbury as a leader of "the women's division" of the party in Pennsylvania in the last days of do-gooder females who are not themselves running for office; Mays as a shy but determined whistle-blower; and McKean as an all-around crafty but sensible campaign manager. All the stereotypes work because, like many generalizations, they are built on the stuff of truth - material that Vidal efficiently manipulates.
Philadelphians will enjoy some of the play's fine points - a candidate reads The Inquirer during a conversation on stage, but it is an old-fashioned Inquirer that looks to be from the '20s, not the '60s, there to offer nostalgia graphics, as are the black-and-white TVs lined up on either side of the stage. There's a reference to a phone number with the old Walnut (WA) exchange. And characters joke about the taste of the city's water.
So there's no escaping Philly in this production directed by Michael Wilson to benefit the snap-snap patter and sharp repartee of Vidal's script. You also can't get away from the fact that the definitions of right and wrong in politics, as The Best Man demonstrates, are as evasive as the politicians.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter.
Theater?The Best Man
At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th St., New York. Tickets: $66-$141. Information: 1-800-432-7250 or http://thebestmanonbroadway.com.