“May the best man win” is a phrase repeated so often in The Best Man, Gore Vidal’s scathing 1960 play about ethics in politics, that you know from the opening pistol at the starting gate that the best man will go down in flames by the end of Act III. In Michael Wilson’s deftly directed but unevenly acted new Broadway revival at the Gerald Schoenfeld, the play is still riveting and the backstage issues about the name-calling ruthlessness and back-stabbing corruption of dirty American political campaigns are, in light of the vulgar and wretched ferocity on display in this election year, still relevant. It’s an intelligent and pulsating evening in the theater, but unfortunately I could not avoid the nagging feeling that I was watching something too idealistic and old-fashioned to be true. There hasn’t been a candidate for presidential nomination this moral, unselfish and democratic since John F. Kennedy.
In case you haven’t seen previous incarnations of the play, or the excellent 1964 movie with Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson, The Best Man is about the mud-slinging battle between two diverse rivals during the 1960 national convention of an unspecified political party when 1,000 delegates gather in Philadelphia to select their party’s nominee to be the next president of the U.S. The civilized dramatics (and there are plenty of them) center on the keyhole-view maneuvers in the hotel suites of the two front-runners. William Russell (inspired by Adlai Stevenson, played with incorruptible rectitude in the movie by Henry Fonda, and now a disturbing dash of yawning dullness by John Larroquette) is a secretary of state with impeccable principles who is expected secure the nomination on the first ballot. His opponent is Joe Cantwell (Eric McCormack), a handsome but unscrupulous senator who will stop at nothing to move himself and his curvaceous Southern dimwit wife Mabel (Kerry Butler) into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Both candidates are flawed characters. Only Russell’s estranged wife, Alice (a matronly, miscast Candice Bergen), knows that behind her husband’s much-admired patriotic persona is a cheating womanizer she cannot forgive for the pain his deception and sexual promiscuity have caused her. (All of which, in light of the adulterous infidelity of almost every president for the past 50 years, is much less shocking than it was in 1960.) She’s rejoined her husband with great reluctance to help him win, on one condition: no girls in the White House and if he loses, “we go our own separate ways.” Cantwell is a slick and nasty piece of work (primarily based on Richard Nixon, with some of Robert Kennedy’s ambition). He doesn’t drink, smoke or play around with women. He’s trailing, but he’s the darling of the right-wing conservatives, having made his mark in Senate hearings accusing the Mafia of fronting the Communist party. Both men need the endorsement of former President Arthur Hockstader (James Earl Jones). Leaving aside for a moment the fact that a black president before the civil rights movement is a preposterous idea, “Artie” is dying of cancer and distrusts them both for reasons too complex to go into here. So it’s up to the two rivals to destroy each other, since nobody else will do it for them. Cantwell has dug up some dirt about Russell’s mental instability, and hits below the belt by threatening to release the illegally obtained hospital records of Russell’s old nervous breakdown to the press unless he concedes. Meanwhile, the liberal Russell digs up some dirt of his own in the form of a slimy snake named Sheldon Marcus (Jefferson Mays) who claims he has proof that Cantwell was engaged in homosexual activities in the Army. Here lies the dilemma. Should Russell, even with Hockstader’s gleeful urging, fight dirty, dodging a mudslide by slinging even more mud? Refusing to address gossip instead of the issues that will decide the future of America, the moral choice he makes to rise above the character-destroying pitfalls of deceptions, betrayals and the deal-making compromises of political corruption eventually changes the election and the future of America. That much nobility is hard to take. The idealism is honorable, but we’ve become much more cynical now. Still, it’s dramatically cogent. No matter how many times I see this play, Gore Vidal’s third-act confrontation between Cantwell and Russell gets my adrenalin going.
The Best Man is organic theater, and with all of the flag-waving noise and red-white-and-blue noise and banners and television screens, director Michael Wilson frames the stinging issues with the tensions of a real convention. Curiously, it is not always best served by the jagged performances. Eric McCormack fares very well as the hateful Cantwell. Behind his smooth Ivy League polish, brittle reserve and fierce determination to succeed, he best exudes Mr. Vidal’s description of “plain naked ambition” while displaying no evidence of admirable leadership. Angela Lansbury, as a national committee chairwoman named Sue-Ellen Gamadge, a pink and powdered old trout who shoots from the hip with the charm of a bulldozer to please the women voters, is beyond perfection. Pushy, nosy, crafty and dangerous, she commands the stage in her two scenes with such force that you can’t take your eyes off her, proving again there is no such thing as a small role when played by a big talent. As much as I respect James Earl Jones, I found his eye-rolling, knee-slapping, scenery-chewing, guffawing and inarticulate Big Daddy overacting an embarrassment. Who would ever dream that Mr. Vidal based his character on Harry Truman? He must have had something in mind, but it was not Barack Obama. He just seems ludicrous. Who would ever elect Stepin’ Fetchit as president of the U.S.A.? And yet the audience (and obviously, the director) forgives him for everything. “Life is not a popularity contest,” someone says. “Neither is the presidency.” Ah, but it is, folks. It still is.