Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, NYC
May 15, 2012
A religious experience! It’s as if the Olympian gods said to one another, “Let’s put on a show!”
First of all: Gore Vidal.
Gore Vidal is the author of twenty-four novels, five plays, many screenplays, more than two hundred essays, and the critically lauded memoir, Palimpsest. Vidal’s United States (Essays 1952-92) won the 1993 National Book Award.
Then, there is more than four centuries of combined theatrical experience on the stage of this production.
Thirdly, the cast is made up of legends: James Earl Jones (he was amazing!), Angela Lansbury (she was amazing, but I have adored her for so many years she could have been terrible and I would have buzzed with pure joy just to see her on the boards, but even so, she was flawless), John Larroquette (always good, maybe under-appreciated, at least by me, until now…he was brilliant), Candice Bergen (loved her for a long time and she did not disappoint in this production), and comedy legend Michael McKean (who gave a good performance too).
I didn’t recognize Kerry Butler, but her performance was strong. I was surprised by my dislike for the performance of Eric McCormack. McCormack’s character was indistinguishable from his “Will” of television’s Will & Grace except that his performance was further tainted by his inability to sustain some sort of dialect he was trying to achieve (he was playing the role of a senator from what we might now call a “red” state). His accent sounded like Canadian Eric McCormack playing New Yorker Will Truman playing, inconsistently, a “good old boy” from Oklahoma or Texas. His was the weakest performance on a stage that was otherwise the banquet hall of the gods. He was rather like the weakest of mortals stumbling into a den of Titans.
The play of course is well-known and shows the soul struggle of one who wants to be elected to public office but doesn’t want to compromise his integrity even as he is constantly advised to do whatever it takes to win office because only the strong deserve it and one can’t do much unless one has the position and authority to make things happen.
The characters are rich:
The rural “hick” (Jones) who rose to become a popular and seemingly effective president who now, as a former president, is courted mostly for the power of his personal endorsement. He admits to not being disturbed by infidelity, cruelty, dishonesty, or scheming but is rather troubled by leaders who don’t understand people, who aren’t willing to enter into a political fight, and who appear to him to be “stupid.” He also admits (privately) to being an agnostic who has pretended to be a person of faith to win votes and the support of conservative areas of the country. By the end of the play, the former president dies.
The party bureaucrat (Lansbury) who tries to use her influence with “women voters” to help shape the platform, message, and image of the candidates.
The philandering but civic minded, non-religious, highly principled (when it comes to public life), mostly honest candidate (Larroquette) who won’t stoop to character assassination even when the accusations would probably be true and could benefit his campaign. He is the party’s front runner. His chief aid is played by McKean.
His wife (Bergen) who is delaying divorcing him until after the campaign (and if it’s successful, until after his presidency). Her only stipulation for supporting him is that he cannot bring paramours into the white house nor ever be caught with a mistress. He agrees to her terms. By the end of the play, they have fallen in love with each other again and their relationship is renewed.
The front runner’s closest competition (McCormack). He claims to be religious and a devoted family man, however, he is plagued by rumors of a homosexual affair during his military service. He hopes to keep these rumors out of the public, and if they should be made known he hopes to discredit them; but even though there are skeletons in his closet, he is willing (and determined) to use his opponent’s previous bout with depression against him to prove he is too unstable to handle the high pressure presidency. His wife (Butler) is his accomplice and biggest supporter, though apparently because she wants the prestige of being first lady more than she believes in his vision or skills.
In the end, the former cabinet secretary/party front runner running against a mud-slinging Senator chooses to both undermine his opponent and stand by his principles by pulling out of the race and giving all his delegates to the number three person in the race for the party’s nomination. By staying true to his values and doing what he honestly believes is best for the party and country, at some personal cost to himself, the Secretary/presidential candidate has a moral victory and even saves his troubled marriage in the process.
Though the play was written in the 1960s, it remains as relevant and topical as if had been written in the 21st century. And while it is obviously an ensemble piece, each character is so well written that the actors’ performance of those characters tend to stand out. And James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury brought to the stage an energy, a gravitas, and a confidence that electrified the entire room. More than how they delivered lines, did “business” with props, or responded to other actors in dialogue, what they demonstrated most supremely was a comfort on the stage, a rapport with the audience, a complete identification with their character, and a belief in what the character was trying to accomplish. And those are lessons that can benefit the solo performer as much as the ensemble performer.
Still, for as good as the writing and the performances were, what was the most thrilling for me was seeing legends of the stage come together, work together, and make magic one more time. I hope I will see James Earl Jones or Angela Lansbury perform again, but as he is in his early 80s and she is in her late 80s, I can always treasure the experience of seeing them toward the end of their careers and of realizing that they were as good toward the end as they had ever been.