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It's July 1960 in Philadelphia and a political party has gathered to nominate a presidential candidate — but both leading contenders are flawed, and the convention is deadlocked. Who's the best man for the job?
Gore Vidal's 1960 play The Best Man, which is getting a Broadway revival, will strike audiences as surprisingly timely.
One candidate is an intellectual liberal, the other a populist conservative. Director Michael Wilson says Vidal, the outspokenly liberal author of the play, wrote it with a very specific agenda in mind.
"He, in part, wrote the play to help John F. Kennedy get elected president, because he was concerned that Kennedy was so smart and was so exceptionally bright that people might mistrust him and go with, say, Lyndon B. Johnson — who was vying for the nomination at the time that Gore wrote the play," Wilson says.
And, Wilson adds, Vidal opened up a window into what really went on in those back rooms at brokered political conventions.
"Gore Vidal is the ultimate insider to American politics who remained an outsider," Wilson says. "He used his access to give all of us, who don't have that kind of access, a window on what it is to really be a public servant and to strive to be a public servant."
The smoke-filled rooms of 1960 may be gone — today, conventions typically ratify the choices of primary voters — but actor John Larroquette says the fight for political dominance still feels current.
"Looking at it as a piece of theater, I think it's very entertaining, and the parallels to what's happening in this particular race year, I suppose, is very pertinent," Larroquette says. "You know, the whole idea of religion in politics and the idea of what are you willing to do to win, how much are you willing to do ... in order to get the votes that you want."
Larroquette's blue-blooded, Harvard-educated William Russell, a former secretary of state, is pitted in the play against Joe Cantwell, a scrappy, telegenic conservative senator who's not above using smear tactics.
"He plays to win; nothing else makes any sense to him," says actor Eric McCormack, who plays Cantwell. "He simply doesn't understand the concept of fair play for fair play's sake. Somebody has to win and it's going to be him. And the concept that dirty tricks are dirty, or that mud-slinging is wrong, that there's a nice way to play, is beyond him."
While the audience doesn't meet Joe Cantwell until a half hour after The Best Man begins, it certainly hears a lot about him. "Nothing but ambition," says an ex-president played by James Earl Jones. He describes Cantwell as a wily political animal — a "ring-tail wonder" who'll lean right or left depending on the political winds.
And that ring-tail wonder has the goods on his opponent. Russell is a womanizer who several years before was quietly hospitalized with a nervous breakdown.
But Russell also has the goods on Cantwell — a family man who may or may not have had a same-sex fling in the Army. The question is: Are they going to use this information against each other — this is 1960, remember — by releasing it to the press? Larroquette says the two candidates in the play are leading up to what, in the parlance of the day, would have been called mutual assured destruction.
"Are you willing to destroy someone else's reputation?" he asks, framing the play's question. "Are you willing to market in innuendo and gossip, and not talk about the person's actions, as far as policy is concerned, but his personality, as far as his private life is concerned?"
They square off in a third-act confrontation — one that McCormack says is interestingly revealing.
"It's not like Cantwell's an idiot; he certainly doesn't believe in intellectualism for its own sake, but he's smart. He's very, very smart. And to see their two different kinds of smart attack each other in the ring is fascinating."
Director Wilson notes that more than one scene in The Best Man ends with one of the highly flawed candidates saying "may the best man win." But what, he asks, determines who's best?
"Is the best man one that can, you know, act quickly out of animal reflex, to quote Gore, or is it someone that actually does reflect and have a conscience, and will often think before he acts?"
Audiences may find the play's answer to that question very surprising.