Pols in a Pickle

Dirty tricks: Left to right, Spalding Gray, Jonathan Hadary, and Chris Noth in Gore Vidal's The Best Man.Photo: Peter Cunningham

Because of last year’s unrelated but identically titled movie, The Best Man had to become Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, which is just as well considering that Vidal is the best thing about it. It is his best play, and one of his shrewdest pieces of writing, holding up well even in an imperfect production.

The play takes place in two Philadelphia hotel suites during a 1960 political convention in which two candidates for the presidential nomination are running neck and neck. Secretary of State Russell is a Harvard-educated Rhode Island liberal, refined and honorable; supposedly Mafia-busting senator Cantwell (note his name!) is a man of the people, adept at dirty tricks and mouthing phrases like “Let the best man win.” Both hope for the endorsement of the wily but likable ex-president, Art Hockstader, who keeps them in suspense. A triangle play in a sense, though with love replaced by politics.

Vidal, who himself ran unsuccessfully for political office, is a senatorial scion and presidential kinsman; he knows the political scene with slightly jaundiced intimacy, and has loosely modeled his three principals on Stevenson, Nixon, and Truman. He has deftly surrounded them with wives, campaign managers, a few ancillary figures, and a swaggering horde of reporters and delegates. The piece is a political whirligig but also a play of ideas, about the politics of life as much as the life of politics, which also includes insights into two very different marriages. Basically a wry comedy, it has serious overtones and philosophical implications.

Cantwell has acquired hospital records of a long-past nervous breakdown of Russell’s, with which, unless the latter bows out of the race, he threatens to ruin him. Then an old grudge-bearing Army buddy of Cantwell’s shows up and offers Russell a homosexual scandal from the senator’s service days, usable as a potent counterweapon. Despite urgings to the contrary, Russell shies back from dirty pool, yet may be forced into playing it.

Russell has also been a hefty womanizer (a touch of Kennedy in this Stevenson), so that his wife, Alice, has left him, but she has now come back to support his candidacy. Cantwell and his dizzy wife, Mabel, play lovey-dovey Papa and Mama Bear with each other as if they knew Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which, like most other cultural things, they don’t. Needless to tell you whose side Vidal is on, but he has written juicy roles for all concerned. And wit is plentiful, edged with sadness: Hockstader is dying by inches.

The writing squeezes all sorts of good things out of this material: surprises, reversals, pungent character sketches, satire, worldly wisdom. It is all (including shady sex in the White House) as timely as four decades ago but, to be sure, not so much because of oracular prescience as because the carnival never really changes, in Philadelphia or Washington as in New Orleans or Rio. But that does not mean that reminders of this sadly comical sameness should not be issued periodically, especially if they are well crafted and witty.

Unfortunately, Ethan McSweeny’s direction is not up to snuff. When it is not simply plodding, it seems to have goaded the good Christine Ebersole into caricaturing Mabel Cantwell, and has not curbed the funny but excessive Elizabeth Ashley (as the chairman of the Women’s Division) from helicoptering over the top. It has also allowed Jonathan Hadary, as the weaselly Marcus, to become even more precariously mannered than he usually is, which constitutes a woeful wonder.

As Russell, Spalding Gray does little to dispel our notion of him as a monologuist rather than an actor, but he carries himself with dignity even if with undernourished passion. As Cantwell, Chris Noth tends to be rather one-note, but at least the note is well chosen and sees him through. Better than either is the Hockstader of Charles Durning, one of our canniest actors, who scores with the minimum of effort or emphasis.

Good work, too, from Michael Learned as an Alice Russell whose hauteur is not frigidity, whose repressed longing is not played for pathos. Mark Blum and Jordan Lage, as the rival campaign managers, get every ounce of vitality out of their supporting roles. Add John Arnone’s cleverly stylized set, skillfully suggesting two different suites plus a convention hall, even if neither Arnone nor the director quite succeeds in conveying three different rooms within the same suite. Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes exhibit her trusty savoir faire, though one of Mabel’s may be too droll to be true. Howell Binkley’s lighting, David Van Tieghem’s sounds, and Walter Cronkite’s voice complete the compelling picture. Whatever reservations you may have about this production, boredom will not be one of them.

Pols in a Pickle