Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Mud Will Be Slung

When I first read that the Aurora Theatre Company had scheduled its opening night of Gore Vidal's political thriller, The Best Man, for August 29th (the Friday night before Labor Day weekend), I was a bit startled. It didn't seem like a date that would attract much attention.

How wrong I was.

Following a week in which the Democratic convention had dazzled television audiences --and in which Barack Obama's acceptance speech had drawn more viewers than the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing -- Friday morning started off with a bang. John McCain announced his selection of Alaska's Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate.

Since then, like a sexually transmitted disease, Palin has become the gift that just keeps giving. As the media keeps digging into her not-so-thoroughly vetted past, one political embarrassment after another keeps rising to the surface like pus erupting from a patch of acne. Meanwhile, the farce known as political mudslinging reached bizarre heights this weekend when Karl Rove called Joe Biden "a big, blowhard doofus." Biden responded by calling Rove "a great American."

Politics wasn't always so comedic. Back in 1960, when Vidal wrote his play, the use of political insults and blackmail had not yet become an institutionalized part of a political campaign's product roleout. Following the McCarthy era -- and the disappointing candidacy of Adlai Stevenson -- intellectuals were suspect. Too many politicians turned out to be completely amoral.

I actually saw the original production of The Best Man (which opened on March 31, 1960 at Broadway's Morosco Theatre). At the time, I was in junior high school and thought everyone told the truth -- and only the truth (especially if they were running for President).
I was much too naive to understand political power games, blackmail, or the concept of bluffing.

In retrospect, and with a much deeper awareness of Gore Vidal's interest in the landscape of American politics, The Best Man holds up remarkably well. Vidal was perversely prescient in using a person's medical records (which document a nervous breakdown) as a means of threatening to undo a rival's candidacy. In 1972, when George McGovern chose Thomas Eagleton as his running mate, reports of Eagleton's having received electroshock treatments led to his withdrawal from the ticket 18 days later.

Former Secretary of State William Russell and his wife Alice (photo by David Allen)

In The Best Man, Senator Joseph Cantwell has managed to procure the medical records detailing former Secretary of State William Russell's psychiatric treatment following a nervous breakdown. A former insurance salesman with a Rovian approach to the politics of personal destruction, Cantwell is an angry bully who claims to have no vices. His opponent is a much more cerebral type whose integrity often prevents him from approaching politics as a blood sport (comparisons of Russell to Barack Obama and Cantwell to John McCain are entirely appropriate).

The third person in the equation is former President Arthur Hockstader who, although he is dying of cancer, doubts Russell's instinct for the political kill. When Russell's campaign gets word of a chink in Cantwell's armor, the candidate hesitates to use the information, which would be lethal to Cantwell's political career.

Candidate Russell with ex-President Arthur Hockstader (photo by David Allen)

Back in 1960 I was not yet aware that I was gay -- nor did I pick up on what the gimmick was when I attended a performance of The Best Man. Nearly 50 years later, it's all too evident that Vidal knew how to bring a man's deepest secret out into the open. Cantwell's hidden secret is that, while stationed in the Aleutian Islands, he succumbed to the temptation of gay sex in the absence of any women. Russell's right-hand man even manages to produce someone who knew what was going on back then and who still has a crush on Cantwell.

Sheldon Marcus meets up with his old flame, Senator Joseph Cantwell (photo by David Allen)

Nearly 50 years after its Broadway premiere The Best Man remains a tightly-crafted drama with a wonderful surprise ending. Written with keen insight into the venal instincts of top-level politics, Vidal's script also reminds us what it is like to have a master craftsman shaping an actor's lines. The Aurora Theatre Company's production was smartly staged by Tom Ross for the Alafi auditorium's arena seating. As Secretary Russell, Charles Shaw Robinson created a multilayered portrait of a principled man who is reluctant to lie down with pigs. Tim Kniffin's characterization of his opponent, Senator Cantwell, left no doubt about who grew up in a sty. Emilie Talbot (as Russell's estranged wife, Alice) and Deb Fink (as the kittenish Mabel Cantwell) offered strong support as the two candidates' wives. Charles Dean was an appealing ex-president while Michael Patrick Gaffney (as Russell's right-hand man) and Michael Cassidy (as Cantwell's right-hand man) added nicely to the dramatic tension.

If you've been following this year's campaign for the White House closely, you'll relish the chance to catch a performance of The Best Man at the Aurora Theatre Company. Tough politics don't always come with good writing. Unless, of course, the author is Gore Vidal.

No comments: