Red, white and blue bunting, streamers and state banners decorated the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, while black and white television monitors flickered with fuzzy images of pandering politicians and gaggles of journalists. The revival of Gore Vidal's "The Best Man" may be melodramatic at times, but there are plenty of parallels in this 1960 play to today's bitterly fought presidential campaign.
"The Best Man" depicts a time when presidential conventions were brokered through backroom deals as delegates were swapped for political favors. Then the palpable suspense and uncertainty would play out on home television screens across America. Today conventions have become blandly predictable coronation ceremonies, just short of political infomercials.
The play takes place during a 1960 political convention in Philadelphia. Vidal does a masterful job of making the backroom political machinations of those days engaging and interesting for the audience. The clash is between a highly moral liberal candidate, Harvard educated William Russell, played by John Larroquette, and a blindly ambitious and unscrupulous opponent, state-school educated Joseph Cantwell, played by John Stamos, who took over the part this week.
James Earl Jones plays former president Arthur Hockstader with energy and flourish as he wrestles over whom to endorse before he dies of cancer. Angela Lansbury is warm and endearing in her portrayal of Sue-Ellen Gamadge, a shrewd party operative on behalf of women. While Lansbury's part is small, she is a powerful and memorable presence. Cybill Shepherd and Kristin Davis are also new to the cast this week, and their performances as Mrs. Russell and Mrs. Cantwell were both uneven, perhaps due to first-night jitters.In the play, William Russell is an idealist. “I don’t believe in polls, accurate or not," he says. "And if I may bore you with one of my little sermons: Life is not a popularity contest; neither is politics. The important thing for any government is educating the people about the issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion.” Joseph Cantwell will do whatever it takes to win. When President Hockstader scolds him, "There have been moments when I have questioned your methods," Cantwell's response is unapologetic, "Well, you have to fight fire with fire, Mr. President."
Both candidates seek President Hockstader's endorsement. The president meets separately with each of them before he is scheduled to give an endorsement speech. He asks Russell if he believes in God. Russell says he is not a believer. Hockstader says, “The world’s changed since I was politickin...In those days you had to pour God over everything, like ketchup.” Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, the convention is deadlocked. Russell has a small delegate lead over Cantwell and a third contender, but not enough to secure the nomination. Cantwell receives a copy of Russell's medical records that show he has had a bout with mental illness. Cantwell sees this as his ticket to the nomination. In response, Russell's campaign manager finds a witness who says Cantwell had a homosexual affair while they served together in the military. But Russell does not want to stoop to personal attacks, “In the South, a candidate for sheriff once got elected by claiming that his opponent’s wife had been a thespian."
In the end, the 1960 Philadelphia convention will not be decided on the issues. There is no talk of the party platform, economy, social programs or the standoff with the Soviet Union. Instead, the characters focus on pure politics at its powerful, pandering, philandering worst. Especially President Hockstader, "If you don't go down there and beat Joe Cantwell to the floor with this very dirty stick, then you've got no business in the big league. Because if you don't fight, the job is not for you. And it never will be."
This year's edition of "The Best Man" is ably directed by Michael Wilson and is currently scheduled to run until September 9. The star-studded cast alone makes the play worth seeing. But Angela Lansbury is scheduled to leave the cast on July 22. Her next project, "Driving Miss Daisy", will be staged in Australia this winter and will include James Earl Jones.
Of course, the U.S. presidential election takes place this coming November. And by the time all the ballots are counted Americans will have experienced the dirtiest and most expensive presidential campaign in history.
Maybe candidate William Russell was right when he said, "Any man that wants to be President is crazy."