Theater
11:59 am
Fri March 30, 2012

A Mud-Slinging Political Drama Returns To Broadway

Originally published on Fri May 11, 2012 8:33 pm

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.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's July 1960 in Philadelphia. A political party has gathered to nominate a presidential candidate, but both leading contenders are flawed and the convention is deadlocked. Who is the best man for the job? Gore Vidal's 1960 play, "The Best Man," which opens on Broadway tonight, is surprisingly timely. It features an all-star cast: James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Candice Bergen, John Larroquette, and Eric McCormack among them.

Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: One candidate is an intellectual liberal; the other, a populist conservative. Michael Wilson, director of "The Best Man," says Gore Vidal, the outspokenly liberal author of the play, originally wrote it with a very specific agenda in mind.

MICHAEL WILSON: 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 would mistrust him and they might go with, say, a Lyndon B. Johnson who was vying for the nomination at the time that Gore wrote the play.

LUNDEN: And Wilson adds Vidal opened up a window into what really went on in those back rooms at brokered political conventions.

WILSON: Gore Vidal is the ultimate insider to American politics who remained an outsider. 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.

LUNDEN: The smoke-filled rooms of 1960 may be gone. Today, conventions ratify the choices of primary voters, but actor John Larroquette says the fight for political dominance still feels current.

JOHN LARROQUETTE: 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. 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 anything possible in order to get the votes that you want.

LUNDEN: Larroquette's character, William Russell, a blue-blooded, Harvard-educated former secretary of state, is pitted against Joe Cantwell, a scrappy, telegenic conservative senator, who's not beyond using smear tactics. Eric McCormack plays him.

ERIC MCCORMACK: He plays to win; nothing else makes any sense to him. 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.

LUNDEN: While the audience doesn't meet Joe Cantwell until a half-hour after "The Best Man" begins, they certainly hear a lot about him. Here are John Larroquette and James Earl Jones, as former president Artie Hockstader.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE BEST MAN")

JAMES EARL JONES: (as Artie Hockstader) Joe Cantwell is nothing but ambition, just plain naked ambition.

LARROQUETTE: (as William Russell) And to get elected, he will lie.

JONES: (as Artie Hockstader) Yup.

LARROQUETTE: (as William Russell) He will cheat.

JONES: (as Artie Hockstader) Yup.

LARROQUETTE: (as William Russell) He'll destroy the reputations of others.

JONES: (as Artie Hockstader) Yup. Good.

LARROQUETTE: (as William Russell) So, I assume you're endorsing me for the nomination.

JONES: (as Artie Hockstader) Hell no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JONES: (as Artie Hockstader) Just because he's a, just because he's a bastard, don't mean he wouldn't make a good candidate or even a good president.

LARROQUETTE: (as William Russell) Joe Cantwell, a good - you're not serious.

JONES: (as Artie Hockstader) He's got a real sense of how to operate.

LARROQUETTE: (as William Russell) Operate? No, accommodate. If the people are conservative...

JONES: (as Artie Hockstader) He'd be conservative.

LARROQUETTE: (as William Russell) If they're radical...

JONES: (as Artie Hockstader) He'd be radical. Oh, I tell you, son, he's a kind of a ring-tail wonder.

LUNDEN: 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 engaged in homosexual activities while in the Army. The question is: are they going to use this information against each other - in those pre-Twitter days - by releasing it to the press?

John Larroquette says the two candidates in the play are leading up to, in the parlance of the day, assured mutual destruction.

LARROQUETTE: Are you willing to destroy someone else's reputation? Are you willing to market in innuendo and gossip, and not talk about the person's actions, as far policy is concerned, but his personality, as far as his private life is concerned?

LUNDEN: They square off in a third-act confrontation.

Eric McCormack.

MCCORMACK: And it's not like Cantwell is 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE BEST MAN")

LARROQUETTE: (as William Russell) I came down here to convince you to drop that nonsense against me, as I mean to drop this nonsense against you. These things are irrelevant; dishonest, not to mention untrue. They cancel each other out. So yes, please, I wish you would join me in not indulging in personalities. I will tear this up. I will send Sheldon Marcus back to where he came from if you drop that nonsense against me.

MCCORMACK: (as Joe Cantwell) I see. You came here to make a deal with me.

LARROQUETTE: (as William Russell) No, Joe. I don't make...

MCCORMACK: (as Joe Cantwell) That makes perfect sense, what you're doing. And I have no hard feelings, really, I mean it - so don't be apologetic.

LARROQUETTE: (as William Russell) You have no feelings, I would say.

LUNDEN: Several scenes in "The Best Man" end with one of the highly flawed candidates saying may the best man win, says director Michael Wilson.

WILSON: 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?

LUNDEN: And audiences may find the ultimate answer to that question very surprising. "The Best Man" opens at the Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway tonight.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.