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April 3, 2012

TT: Inside the sausage factory

I've written a bonus drama column for today's Wall Street Journal in which I have mostly good things to say about the Broadway revival of The Best Man and mostly bad things to say about End of the Rainbow. Here's an excerpt.

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Give the devil his due: "The Best Man," Gore Vidal's play about what ambitious men will do to one another in order to live in the White House, is a solidly crafted drama that has lost not a scintilla of its relevance since it first opened on Broadway in 1960. For all the frothy paranoia of his public statements on politics, Mr. Vidal knows, or knew, a good deal about how people get elected--his grandfather was a senator--and that knowledge helps to make "The Best Man" both witty and perceptive.

Though the 2000 Broadway revival of "The Best Man" was only modestly successful, this one seems destined to be a knockdown hit, both because of its trillion-watt cast (I mean, James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury--what more could you want?) and because it was staged by Michael Wilson. Mr. Wilson, the man behind Signature Theatre's unforgettable production of Horton Foote's "Orphan's Home Cycle," is one of our very best stage directors, and he has collaborated closely with Derek McLane, the set designer, to create a show that glides from scene to scene with the seemingly effortless fluidity that is his trademark.

tn-500_screenshot2012-03-27at12.58.02pm.jpgBill Russell (John Larroquette), the hero of the piece, is an Adlai Stevenson stand-in, brainy and sardonic, whose private life makes him a dicey presidential candidate (his closet is full of skeletons, extramarital and otherwise). The same is true of his opportunistic opponent, Joe Cantwell (Eric McCormack, formerly of "Will and Grace"), a slicked-up Joe McCarthy type who may be a sexual switch-hitter. Their fate is in the hands of Art Hockstader (Mr. Jones), the popular ex-president whose endorsement both men seek--and who has more than a few secrets of his own....

I last saw "The Best Man" six years ago in a top-notch production by Chicago's Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, which mounted the play in a 150-seat house, thus making it possible to deemphasize the comedy (of which there is quite a bit) and concentrate on the elegantly written showdowns between the main characters. On Broadway, Mr. Wilson has necessarily and wisely opted for a broader approach. He has also taken full advantage of Mr. Jones, who is in lionesque form. It isn't always fun to see an actor having fun, but Mr. Jones plays President Hockstader with a lip-smacking panache that is guaranteed to please....

Tracie Bennett can sing like Judy Garland, more or less, and if you have any interest in hearing her do so, go see Peter Quilter's "End of the Rainbow," a play about the last pathetic months of the drug-sodden Garland's life, in which Ms. Bennett gives what amounts to a mini-concert of Judy's Greatest Hits. Be forewarned, however, that Mr. Quilter's script is heavy on bitchy one-liners and light on insight, and that Ms. Bennett's portrayal of Garland-at-the-End-of-Her-Rope is a heavily shellacked impersonation that slops over into shameless caricature....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted April 3, 2012 12:00 AM

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