Gore Vidal-or Moses as he’s known among the prophets-is back in town to lead us from the wilderness once more, and we are glad. If I ungraciously whisper that I’d sooner not hear another name-dropping mention from his purring good self about his close friendship with “Jack” and his distant relative “Jackie”-not to mention his understandable disinterest in his distant cousin Al Gore-it is only because Mr. Vidal’s credentials for writing a political drama are self-evident. Apart from his more renowned political novels, he ran for Congress in 1960 and the Senate in 1982. Our patrician loss. But who better to see through the laughable political process than the man The New York Times calls “The Bard of American Politics”?
The Best Man first nailed the corruption and moral compromise of Presidential candidates and their absurdly devoted wives 40 years ago. A sensation in its day, the old war horse has now been revived with a big, starry cast in an intriguing time-capsule at the Virginia Theatre on Broadway under the new title Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (lest we confuse it with the one by Chekhov). An amusing message signed by “Walter Cronkite & Gore Vidal” in the Playbill could be among the most brazen statements Mr. Vidal has ever made, with or without Mr. Cronkite. It appears under the ritually solemn announcement, “Time: July 1960. Place: Philadelphia. There Will Be One Intermission”:
“Political conventions today are not what they used to be. There was a time when politics was played openly on the convention floor for the elucidation, delight, and occasionally [sic] dismay of the American people. This is the way it could have been in 1960, in Philadelphia, in a different world that, somehow, has not changed all that much.”
Ho-hum to that. This different world has-somehow-changed beyond recognition, as Mr. Vidal prophesied it would in The Best Man , written in 1959 on the cusp of the Brave New World of election by television. Deals and dirt still exist, of course. But the lament about public life from the principled heart of the play’s Adlai Stevenson–like protagonist, William Russell, is for an end to “the business of gossip instead of issues, personalities instead of policies.” An end? It was only just the beginning, as Gore Vidal knows as well as anyone.
Nothing could better reveal the canyon between The Best Man ‘s open convention floor in 1960, with its backstage politicking and suspense, and today’s media non-event and laboriously programmed outcome. “All these predatory teeth, reminding us of our animal descent,” says Russell, demeaned by the new political necessity to smile for the camera-to smarm, suck up, appear worthy, upright, unthreatening, uninteresting, God-fearing and good . But-no surprise today-here’s Al Gore selling himself to the nation in the image of a loose, utterly natural, real live human being on Leno and Letterman. And there’s “the Kiss.” And here comes George W. on Live with Regis , wearing a dark silk tie and matching shirt to prove he’s a regular guy who watches Regis in his dark silk tie and matching shirt on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire . And there’s the two of them on Oprah’s “Remembering your Spirit,” displaying the perfect spirit of their perfectly perfect marriages.
The Best Man , directed by Ethan McSweeny, is a tale-call it a broad moral fable-about Good versus Evil, personified by the principled former Secretary of State William Russell versus the ruthlessly Nixonesque Senator Joseph Cantwell for the Presidential nomination (of which party, the dramatist loftily doesn’t trouble to make clear). The lofty liberal and privileged intellectual Russell-he knows his Oliver Cromwell and Bertrand Russell-could also be a stand-in for Mr. Vidal, and he therefore has the wittiest lines. Monologist Spalding Gray plays him well as an urbane suit. His Secretary Russell is an idealistic patrician whose stubborn opening political statement-“I don’t believe in polls”-receives the first laugh. It isn’t just that politics became more cynical, as The Best Man makes clear. Voters are complicit in the cynicism, as audiences are. We’re all cynics now. “Life is not a popularity contest. Neither is politics,” the high-minded Russell insists to his despairing campaign manager (the excellent Mark Blum), to more knowing laughter-too knowing!-from the Broadway house.
Working-class Senator Cantwell, a virtuous liar and feckless McCarthyite prosecutor fighting fire with fire, is played by Chris Noth of Sex and the City . “What a dish!” said a fan behind me. Be that as it may, the limited Mr. Noth might just as well have been appearing in some soap about a runoff for the presidency of Bloomingdale’s. His role is perilously one-dimensional, to be fair. “You don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you don’t philander ,” crusty old piss-and-vinegar ex-President Arthur Hockstader (Charles Durning) reprimands him, and his disapproving tone is refreshing.
It’s a pleasure to see Mr. Durning on any occasion-even if the dramatist, or his set designer John Arnone, remarkably has him make his entrance through someone else’s bathroom door. Mr. Durning can deliver a line such as “You know, it gets mighty lonely at the White House” and get away with it. His aging, dying President touches us, lighting up at the scent of one last battle in a smoke-filled room. Mr. Durning is so fine and sympathetic an actor that he can make political blackmail seem like the correct moral choice.
Let it be said that our distinguished dramatist doesn’t hold back from a touch of melodrama. Mr. Vidal gives us an ex-President on the point of death; a cliffhanger resting on which candidate the President will endorse-provided he gets through the night; a good cop, Secretary Russell, who philanders whenever he can, unlike the bad cop, shifty Senator Cantwell, who’s too preoccupied to philander. (But is he? Nudge-nudge in the audience.) We have Russell’s stoic wife Alice (played with spicy, dignified authority by that intelligent actress, Michael Learned), who’s been separated from her husband for years but has returned to the fray on the solemn condition of no girls in the White House. We’ve Christine Ebersole’s Mabel Cantwell, a seethingly ambitious Pat Nixon look-alike from the South. We’ve Elizabeth Ashley flouncing in and out as Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, the all-powerful chairman of something called the Women’s Division. And that’s quite enough for now.
The Best Man turns on the ugly business of the sudden discovery of Secretary Russell’s psychiatric treatment for a nervous breakdown, as well as Senator Cantwell’s alleged homosexual frolics in his Army days. What’s the truth? Who will get the nomination? Who’s the best man? Will the ex-Prez be OK? And how are you today, Gore Vidal?
“That was good old-fashioned fun,” I heard a husband saying happily to his wife at the curtain. Close to the mark. That was a good old-fashioned cartoon -a timely thing just the same.