Political change in our country is so constrained, it seems as if little has changed in Washington over the past 200 years except perhaps the attitude towards men wearing wigs. Bipartisan politics are at a standstill, and the public's support of Congress is at an all-time low. In an era of enormous technological changes and achievements, politicians are the only people capable of turning "progressive" into a dirty word.
After a record 20 -- redundant and seemingly endless -- Republican debates, the country is exhausted with politics as usual. Fortunately there is hope on the horizon with the upcoming Broadway revival of Gore Vidal's play, The Best Man, which is currently in rehearsal and opens April 1, 2012. Written in 1960 and made into a film in 1964 with Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson, the play provides a behind the scenes look at an unnamed political party's presidential convention. This was a time when politicians were smart, oozed tons of charm and weren't shy about drinking bourbon & branch water. The words politics and entertainment are seldom found in the same sentence, but The Best Man is loaded with both. During my interview with director Michael Wilson, he summed up the play perfectly: "There's something in it for everyone, no matter what their political stripes are."
I first became aware of Gore Vidal in 1968, when as a young man, I watched him debate (and nearly come to fisticuffs) with William F. Buckley, Jr. when they were both commentators at the Chicago Democratic convention. Vidal's intimate knowledge of our political back alleys resulted from his friendships with the Kennedys and his unsuccessful runs for both the Senate and Congress. Just a cursory glance at the play's realistic dialogue tells you he's been privy to more back room deals than the most jaded political fixer. As Wilson points out, "Gore is razor sharp with his observations."
Wilson has assembled an amazing cast of talented stars that includes James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack, Michael McKean, Jefferson Mays and Donna Hanover (the former Mrs. Rudy Giuliani). Larroquette and McCormack play political rivals who seek the presidency, and Jones is the ex-president (Arthur Hockstader) whose endorsement wields enough clout to ensure a nomination. Wilson aptly describes the Hockstader character as "the ultimate politician," and it's certainly the play's pivotal character and bravura role. Wilson is thrilled to be at the helm of such a brilliant ensemble, but notes, "In this production, in this staging, you're going to feel that James Earl Jones is the centerpiece." There has always been great speculation as to whom each character is based on, and according to Wilson, Vidal modeled some of them after specific people and others are amalgamations of many well-known politicians. Some of the names we discussed were Adlai Stevenson, Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon.
Gore Vidal's work has certainly endured and remains fresh, relevant and compelling today. "The play could have just been merely a satire, but making these real flesh and blood characters and showing their attributes and virtues, as well as their tragic flaws, Gore has created something like a Shakespeare history play," said Wilson. "The play is about power, and how it's passed along from one leader to another and from generation to generation."
When Gore Vidal wrote this play, delegates were more involved in the process of choosing a candidate. Adds Wilson: "Gore felt that the nominating convention was a very lively, democratic way of debating the platform issues of the party, but television has changed the convention from one that nominates to one that merely ratifies, so in that sense, this is a nostalgic look at what we used to have."
Some pundits are predicting that Tampa could actually become a brokered convention, similar to Vidal's depiction in The Best Man. For me, the play also revives something sorely lacking in politics today -- bi-partisanship, witty banter and a moral dilemma. James Madison, the 4th president of the United States said, "Conscience is the most sacred of all property." The Best Man is a morality play about making the right choice, and there's a lesson in it for all of us.
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