Reviewed by George Basler
Back in 1960, Gore Vidal lobbed a grenade at American politics in the form of his satirical play The Best Man.
While the intervening years have made the play seem positively quaint, it still packs some sting in a staged reading being performed this weekend by Southern Tier Actors Read (STAR) at the Phelps Mansion Museum in downtown Binghamton.
The play is “somewhat of a period piece,” acknowledged Judy McMahon, STAR’s director, who is in the cast. That means dated. References to Joseph Alsop and Walter Lippman, powerful columnists of the time, will leave some audience members scratching their heads. The play’s attitude toward women in politics is positively prehistoric.
Most glaringly, the play’s central conflict of whether to use personal dirt to undermine a political opponent is almost laughable considering this year’s mud-filled presidential campaign.
On top of this, while parts of The Best Man still crackle, other parts play like a high-minded civics lesson.
Still, portions of the play are great fun, and Vidal was certainly on target in forecasting the corrupting influence on American politics of public opinion polls and mass media image building.
The action takes place at a political convention back in the day when conventions were still down-and-dirty fights for delegates, not today’s television spectacles for preselected candidates.
As the action begins, former Secretary of State William Russell (Nick DeLucia) and his chief rival, Senator Joseph Cantwell (Mark Roth), are battling for the presidential nomination of their party. Russell is a high-minded intellectual with some skeletons in his closest, while Cantwell is a political opportunist who is not reluctant to exploit any weakness.
Both men are angling for the endorsement of the outgoing president, Arthur Hockstader (Claus Evans), whose folksy manner (“I’m the last of the hicks”) conceals a political shrewdness.
Vidal’s chief inspirations were Adlai Stevenson, the twice-defeated Democratic presidential candidate; Richard Nixon, and former President Harry Truman. Vidal was a committed liberal, so there was no secret where his sympathies lay.
Nonetheless, the Russell character is an ambiguous one. Whether or not Vidal intended it, he comes across as a bit too self-righteous and a bit too timid to effectively wield power. As Hockstader thunders at one point, “Be a saint on your own time.”
The irony is that Cantwell, a deeply flawed man, may be a more effective political operator.
The three leads, seen Thursday (Oct. 13) at their final dress rehearsal, are all good in their roles, and the supporting cast is solid as well. The Hockstader character is an especially rich one, with a lot of great lines, and Evans plays it with great relish.
At the end of the day, The Best Man raises some provocative questions: Does being a decent man guarantee being a good leader? How ruthless does a politician have to be to be an effective leader? How far is too far in pursuing personal ambition?
The Best Man may not be a classic play, but Vidal supplies enough tangy zingers to satisfy the taste buds, and some issues to think on as well. The play proves Mr. Dooley’s adage: “Politics ain’t bean bag.”
IF YOU GO: The Best Man will be presented at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday (Oct. 14 and 15) at the Phelps Mansion Museum, 191 Court St., Binghamton. Tickets at $15 can be purchased at the door.