The Best Man premiered in March 1960 when Gore Vidal was 34 years old and the top Broadway ticket price was $8.60. Both the author and Broadway tickets are now 75; and The Best Man is back, playing a limited engagement (through the final night of this year) at the Virginia Theatre on West 52nd Street.
On Broadway in 1960, The Best Man was one of many straight plays, serious in purpose if not necessarily solemn in tone. In 2000, with Broadway nearly bereft of non-musical plays, Vidal's comic melodrama is sui generis, hyped to a fare-thee-well, and studded with stars.
The biggest star involved is Gore Vidal himself, who has been close to the American limelight since birth. He's the grandson of a national politician (blind orator and Oklahoma senator T.P. Gore), the son of a pioneer in the aviation industry (who was also an extramarital beau of Amelia Earhart's), and the stepson to the Mr. Auchincloss who later became stepfather to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis--which meant that, for a time in early adulthood, Vidal was convivial with the New Frontier set. He skipped college, publishing his first book at 20 and getting a jump on rivals his own age. Over the past 55 years, he has been a fiction writer (24 novels so far), essayist, screenwriter, memoirist, political commentator, and sometime political candidate, as well as having created five stage plays; his last Broadway outing was An Evening with Richard Nixon in 1972.
The Best Man, re-titled Gore Vidal's The Best Man for this revival, concerns shenanigans at the convention of an American political party during that bygone era when candidates were actually chosen in the course of conventions, rather than merely being anointed there. At Vidal's fictional Philadelphia convention, the delegates are debating the relative merits of a patrician intellectual (and former Secretary of State), William Russell, and the ruthless, self-made Senator Joseph Cantwell. A third candidate, strictly an off-stage character, isn't expected to figure in the competition--which should alert playgoers from the start that, in Vidal's mercurial universe, he'll play a significant role in the end.
Vidal claims The Best Man grew out of his ruminations on Henry James' 1890 novel The Tragic Muse. However, there's not much that's Jamesian in The Best Man, or anywhere in Vidal's work. James was absorbed with subterranean tensions; Vidal's gaze is fixed on the surface of things. In his novels and plays, Vidal renders, in detail and with gusto, the diverse textures of social and political life.
The Best Man contrasts two candidates representing opposing values: the ideal of public service versus raw, self-aggrandizing ambition. Secretary Russell, described at one point as "a superior man of the sort we don't get very often in politics," believes a politician should "reflect before he acts" and be guided by a "moral sense that goes beyond himself." The ferociously ambitious Senator Cantwell, on the other hand, will do anything to gain nomination. When each candidate receives potentially incendiary information about his rival's past, the political race veers off course with smear tactics, and self-preservation becomes each man's primary concern.
Gore Vidal's The Best Man utilizes the unrevised, three-act text of the Broadway original (though the production pauses for one intermission rather than two), with the time specified as July 1960. The only additions to the script are fragments of news commentary, inserted between scenes and read by the comforting, iconic voice of Walter Cronkite. Vidal follows the dramaturgical rules passed down from Sardou and Ibsen through more recent practitioners such as Terence Rattigan. Like most non-musical hits of mid-century Broadway, The Best Man is full of talk--more talk and less action than audiences are accustomed to nowadays. From first to last, though, it's good, sometimes irresistible, talk: colorful, smooth, taut, and witty.
Even during the first two scenes, which are loaded with exposition, there's hardly a minute devoid of interesting conflict; and the stakes are high for Vidal's characters from the moment the curtain goes up. Vidal sends the plot in astonishing directions, but the surprises are always credible, adhering to the inner logic of the playwright's fictional universe and the tidy specifications of the Rattigan method. As expected in any "well-made" play, the author introduces a weapon in the first act and discharges it before the evening's end. In The Best Man, there are two weapons: a stolen medical file revealing that Secretary Russell once underwent psychiatric treatment, and the forgotten transcript of a military court that suggests Senator Cantwell may have had an affair with a man while in military service.
What's intriguing is how questions coursing through the playwright's mind four decades ago remain urgent in 2000. As Gore Vidal's The Best Man proceeds from scene to scene, topics kicking around the op-ed pages of this election year come coursing across the footlights. Besides the ethics of attacking opponents on the basis of their personal lives, Vidal raises issues such as what role a candidate's religious conviction ought to play in political discourse; the gulf between genuine leadership and mere image; and the difficulty of maintaining integrity while gaining office.
With more than 15 speaking parts, The Best Man offers a gallery of political grotesqueries, plus a couple of apolitical figures swept into the vortex of the Philadelphia convention for reasons beyond their control. The most piquant roles, drawn by the playwright as bold-featured cartoons, are catnip to a crackerjack group of principals who grab their assignments with relish and race through the evening at breakneck speed. The celebrities in the cast are, without exception, appropriate to their parts. This is one all-star revival that spares the audience the queasy, all-too-familiar feeling that hiring decisions have been based strictly on box office appeal.
As the political wives, Michael Learned and Christine Ebersole are foils to each other, complementing nicely the contrasts in Gray and Noth. Learned, all grace and poise and tasteful couture, brings dignity to the role of Alice Russell, a Yankee matron whose marriage and, perhaps, whole life have been disappointing. A less subtle, introspective performance than Learned's would leave the audience bewildered by Alice's loyalty to her chilly, unfaithful husband. With the tiniest, swiftest brush strokes, Learned's portrait of Alice takes account of the complex, sometimes inexplicable emotions that permit unworkable marriages to continue.
This characterization is the antithesis of Ebersole's lusty, clinging Mabel Cantwell. As helpmate to Noth's lean, hungry senator, Ebersole is shrill and calculating--an alley cat with shifty eyes and claws not always successfully concealed. Her one scene with Learned, in which Mabel's animosity and hyper-competitive nature puncture the thin veneer of her civility, is extremely funny, and the most repugnant incident in an evening full of hilariously ugly episodes.
The production's most vivid scenes belong to Charles Durning, Elizabeth Ashley, and Jonathan Hadary in "guest star" turns that sizzle in the playgoer's mind long after the curtain calls. Durning, as countrified former president Art Hockstader (a last remnant of the "Great Age of the Hicks"), is the voice of pragmatism, a golden mean between the excesses of Russell's idealism and Cantwell's overweening ambition. This monumentally overweight actor is best and most touching as he reveals, whether in dialogue or through stage business, the gritty ex-president's physical pain (he's in a late stage of terminal cancer). In his final scene, Durning offers the play's one heart-in-the-throat moment. It's an expansive, winning, if slightly facile, portrayal, undermined at times by inconsistent amplification.
Ashley plays committeewoman Sue-Ellen Gamadge, "the only known link between the N.A.A.C.P. and the Ku Klux Klan", who claims to speak for the distaff side of her political party. Ashley sails into the action, filmy fabric swirling around her and billowing behind. Like a one-person regiment, she seems to occupy the whole playing area, commanding the stage with idiosyncratic yet convincing gestures, flourishes, and little majesties of manner. She demonstrates precisely how far an actor can go without quite upstaging the rest of the cast. And, just for a minute, before being enveloped in the actress's flamboyant, high-energy performance, the playgoer is apt to reflect: "Yes, of course, this must be what it was like back in the old days, seeing one of those legendary theatrical dynamos like Katharine Cornell or Tallulah Bankhead." Ashley appears only twice in the evening, and that--like a couple of small slices of fruitcake during the Christmas holidays--is enough to satisfy the appetite.
Hadary is in brief parts of only three scenes, yet his portrait of Sheldon Marcus is intricate and complete. Marcus, an outsider to the political process, visits the Convention to deliver a vindictive rumor about Senator Cantwell, who did him a bad turn back in the Army. Though eager to impress, Sheldon is greasy, feral, dim and, most of all, a coward. Were it not for the lightness of Hadary's touch, the audience would find this character execrable from the second he appears. Hadary gives the kind of performance that looks easy but, when analyzed, proves a masterwork of technique and the happy result of the actor's careful observation of human folly.
Because the 17-member company never really gels as an ensemble, Gore Vidal's The Best Man is a parade of distinctive, outsized performances, vying with one another for dominance. If the four leading actors squeeze a modicum of emotion out of their roles and reach further than the spectators' funny-bones--and, to their credit, they do--this is achieved against the grain of Vidal's satiric script and McSweeney's direction. With the exception of Learned, the principals and "guest stars" calibrate their performances not only to the voluminous playhouse but also to the "big-special-event" nature of this revival. All the supporting players, except Mark Blum (as an academic who's trying his hand at partisan politics), get lost in the shuffle.
The production has a slick, expensive look. Designers John Arnone (sets), Howell Binkley (lighting), and David Van Tieghem (sound/original music) work together to create a circus atmosphere, presumably in hopes of giving the audience its $75 worth in visual and aural surprises. Theoni V. Aldredge, who designed costumes for the 1960 original, provides handsome clothes that evoke the 1950s with affection rather than ridicule. Arnone, responsible for the splendor of The Who's Tommy and the aesthetic effrontery of The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, shows his distaste for the 1950s by tricking out the candidates' hotel rooms with hideous gewgaws of the era. Like the great Jo Mielziner, who designed sets for the original production, Arnone uses twin turntables to transfer the action from one candidate's hotel room to the other, with the layout of day room and bedroom reversed in the two suites. The idea is clever enough, but the scene changes are markedly sluggish--and the actors repeatedly step through and stand in the middle of the imaginary walls separating the living rooms and the bedrooms of the suites.
Gore Vidal's The Best Man doesn't replicate the experience playgoers enjoyed in those mid-century days when Broadway was hospitable to straight plays and other small-size productions. This is not so much a revival as an inflation. Vidal's modest, thoroughly entertaining play has been stretched out of proportion to compete with splashy neighbors on the Great White Way, such as Meredith Willson's The Music Man. Still, with or without the fripperies of this production, Gore Vidal's return to the New York stage would be an occasion to celebrate. Too bad he has been away so long.