The Best Man
Sacramento, CA 95825
The Best Man is probably Gore Vidal’s best play (some might argue for Visit to a Small Planet), and the Theater One production of it that opened last Friday is done with the best of intentions, if not with the best execution. Sound miscues, awkward pauses and flubbed lines worked against director Bobby Stewart’s earnest cast.
A political melodrama, The Best Man was inspired in part by the 1960 John F. Kennedy-Richard M. Nixon presidential contest, but Vidal makes his two protagonists (one a handsome playboy type but inherently moral and one a shifty, devious dude) members of the same party, each vying for its nomination. It opened on Broadway in 1960, garnering several Tony Award nominations, including Best Play. What is most remarkable is that, 50 years later, little has changed in the political arena. Dirty tricks, mudslinging and sexual innuendo abound. (A Broadway revival of The Best Man is currently in previews and scheduled to open April 1.)
Vidal’s script is wordy and witty (a speechwriter who commits a syntactical error is referred to as “anti-semantic”) and sometimes just out of reach of the likable actors. Michael Erwin plays William Russell, the handsome, philandering good guy who seeks his party’s nomination against Hank Coffin’s ruthlessly ambitious Sen. Joseph Cantwell. Each hopes for the endorsement of former President Arthur Hockstader (Bill Willkins, in the meatiest role and strongest performance).
Cantwell threatens to release some damaging information about his opponent, but when Russell comes into possession of perhaps more damaging info (a sexual accusation against the self-righteously devout Cantwell), he must decide how far he’s willing to go to win. The wrap-up is appropriate and satisfying—but maybe a little too good for real-world politics.