Few writers in the 20th century managed to get as close to the heart of American politics as Gore Vidal and it is surprising how relevant his 1960 satire The Best Man, revived in an entertaining new production directed by Simon Evans at the Playhouse Theatre, is today.
The play is set in a Philadelphia hotel during the 1960 presidential nominating convention of an unnamed party. It focuses on the horse race between frontrunner William Russell; a fastidious, scrupulous old-money intellectual and former secretary of State, and his chief rival, the bullish populist senator Joseph Cantwell. Both married men have “dirt” on the other – conservative Cantwell’s team exposing medical records that outline liberal-leaning Russell’s stress related breakdown and possible manic depressive tendencies. There’s also the fact that his marriage to Alice has long been a sham, maintained purely for political purposes. Russell, for his part, uncovers the suggestion of a homosexual encounter involving Cantwell and entailing the damning label of “degeneracy.” The only thing that separates the two candidates is an endorsement from a respected ex-president. But where does compromise end and corruption begin? How far will they each go to become the most powerful man in the western world? And who in the end will be proven to be “the best man?”
This is a drama which now seems both nostalgic and topical, taking us back to a time when political conventions were contests rather than coronations, yet chimes with present-day cynicism about politics. Vidal who twice stood for office as a democrat was born into the political maelstrom and writes with an insider’s knowledge. He captures Machiavellian machinations that are inseparable from politics – the backstairs manoeuvres and tactical smears as well as the hypocrisy that is endemic in the political process.
But this is a sedentary, talky evening, which would have benefitted from being opened up as it never moves away from its plush Philadelphia hotel setting and it takes a while for the wheels of the plot to really get going – the first half is dramatically rather thin. Furthermore, while acknowledging the importance of potential first ladies, the play never fully explores the characters of the candidates’ wives.
Martin Shaw has the requisite of self-possession as the principled but privileged Russell, a man of flawed integrity, and also has some of the better barbs – “the self made man often makes himself out of pieces of his victims,” he tells his opponent. Jeff Fahey convinces as the somewhat stiff Cantwell; a self-opportunist from humble origins, permanently on the defensive. Jack Shepherd is a frail but animated ex-president Hockstader.
The women, subordinated, still make their mark, though: Maureen Lipman, stealing every scene she is in giving a cherishable display of frosty elegance as a slyly manipulative committee chair who wields considerable power, Glynis Barber as Russell’s betrayed but tactically loyal spouse and Honeysuckle Weeks, all doe-eyed adoration as Cantwell’s other half.
You are left with the thought: does the best man always win the White House?
Runs until May 12th
Box Office: 0844 871 7631Last modified: April 6, 2021