Gore Vidal’s 1960 comedy The Best Man was worth reviving for two reasons: First, it’s so completely out of date that its difference from the way we live now, politically speaking, makes an object and punishing lesson. Second, it’s so completely contemporary in its outlook and observations that you hardly notice the ways in which it’s out of date. The two qualities can coexist because Vidal’s playfulness about politics amounts to a kind of prescience: You can see the ad-agency-manufactured, televisionized pabulum we now get in political campaigns just beginning to emerge as he writes. A wit whose articulateness and cynicism, along with his stagecraft, evoke French boulevard elegance more often than Broadway excitement, Vidal clearly enjoys not only ideas but the pleasure of toying with them, of watching them crash head-on into their opposites or sink, gurgling, into the quicksand of their proponents’ all-too-human ambiguities. If played sparklingly, his script would be a learning experience not only for our pols and their campaign speechwriters, but for most of our playwrights: This is how even less intelligent Americans were once assumed to speak, in full, nonabusive, reality-conscious sentences. Vidal may dislike or disapprove of most of his characters—and I for one wouldn’t blame him—but he is sufficiently amused by them to grant each the privilege of speaking his or her mind with all the dignity they can muster. His cynicism is too scrupulous ever to be unjust.
The scene is a hotel in Philadelphia, where the backstage negotiations between an unnamed political party’s two leading candidates for the presidential nomination are being bickered out. (It’s assumed that whichever one the party nominates will win in November.) The senior candidate, Bill Russell, is an Adlai Stevenson-like figure, cerebral, slightly aloof, a former Secretary of State from an old-money family, disdainful of the muck of campaigning. He’s also, to his opponent’s intense satisfaction, a compulsive adulterer, with a nervous breakdown in his past and a wife he doesn’t love gamely standing by him as she pines away. The opponent who can’t wait to unload all this dirt is an ambitious young senator, Joe Cantwell, with a manically devoted Southern sugarplum of a wife, a knack for making everyone he grills in televised committee hearings look like a gangster—and an ambiguous homosexual episode in his army past, which Russell either will or won’t exploit to stop Cantwell from using his pilfered psychiatric records. “I won’t throw my mud if you won’t throw yours,” Russell tells Cantwell in their pivotal confrontation. But Cantwell, a born fixer, has all sorts of unforeseen alibis and loopholes; Russell’s only weapons are his intelligence and his integrity, of limited use in a political game where personalities invariably replace substantive issues, and the last person likely to win is the best man—though even here, the crafty Vidal has prepared a modest surprise that gets a very big climactic laugh. Which may not drive the disaffected into the voting booths, but will at least give the motivated a smile of recollection on the way there.
It would do so, anyway, if the new production could muster even a tenth of the sparkle and the ironic sauce in Vidal’s text. But sparkle and sauce are in short supply in these new, media-mucked times. Hazlitt, when he asked, “Why can we not always be young, and seeing The School for Scandal?,” went on to supply the less painful half of the answer: that even if we could stay young, the play’s acting style, after 40 years, couldn’t. “Today,” he wrote ruefully, “there is scarcely an actor alive who can play it.” Things are actually better than that in New York, but not as far as billing above a Broadway title goes. Booked into the vast Virginia, a third too large for its sardonically ping-ponging dialogue, Ethan McSweeney’s production takes leading actors who don’t have the flair for their roles, and then seems to dampen any effort they make toward altering their condition.
The saddest case is first-billed Charles Durning, who ought to have been an easy winner in the lead comic role of ex-president Hockstadter, who must endorse somebody but loathes both candidates equally. Slowed down by age and frailty, Durning wanders in and out of the role; the moments when he hits the bull’s-eye with one of Vidal’s glittering poison darts are magical, but rare. Spalding Gray’s Russell, lucidly spoken and immaculately timed, has the opposite problem: Durning fumbling for a line is still always Hockstadter; Gray, zinging them out on time and on target, is never Russell, his stringent distance from the role making the character seem freezingly aloof. Chris Noth, whom I recall as a mercurial and sexy young actor before his total immersion in TV, reduces the charismatic Cantwell to a dour, fidgeting bully. The women behind the candidates, who get the second line of star billing, all come off better. Christine Ebersole’s Mrs. Cantwell, spicing her chatter with exactly the right measure of both desperation and shrewd spitefulness, gives the fullest performance, but Michael Learned, who suffers an extra layer of pain from the frustration of playing intimate scenes with Gray, definitely gets the sympathy vote. Improbably cast as a comically assertive club woman, Elizabeth Ashley makes herself funny by sheer push, which is not the ideal way but will do in these glum circumstances.
Unsurprisingly, there’s generally better work among the less grandly billed: Mark Blum, the walking embodiment of frazzle, as Russell’s frantic campaign manager; Jordan Lage, fawning and sharklike, as Cantwell’s; Jonathan Hadary, rivetingly peculiar and touching as Cantwell’s vengeful army buddy, a worm who hasn’t quite learned how to turn. With actors as good, with or without star names, in the leading male roles, a script of this quality might have wriggled free even of McSweeney’s draggy pace and thuddingly unironic tone. Whether it could run on Broadway is a different question—proving again that Broadway has no more to do with the theater, these days, than conventions do with political life.
There’s more political life glimpsable Off-Broadway, in considerably stodgier form, in Romulus Linney’s adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying, a novel the stage version doesn’t encourage me to read. In a backwoods Louisiana parish, in 1948, a young black man is sentenced to die for a crime he didn’t commit. Though the era was one in which civil rights consciousness was beginning to burgeon, everyone in town seems to accept this injustice as a matter of course. What chiefly concerns the local African American community is that the condemned man learn to die with dignity. His infinitely nurturing godmother enlists another of her nurturees, a local schoolteacher, to educate him during the numbered days before he faces the electric chair. In the process, of course, both men rise to the level of seriousness the situation demands; both learn more about themselves and become better, braver people.
Apart from the opportunity it gives African American actors for work with some dignity of spirit, the play offers nothing except a surefire occasion to jerk tears, with little moral lessons for sententious relief between the crying jags. For a writer of Linney’s skill and experience, both the messaging and the weeping moments are handled with surprising clumsiness. The message sending is largely entrusted to the teacher’s fiancée, with whom he plays what appears to be the same scene four times over in the same spot; Kent Thompson’s staging echoes Linney’s ponderousness. All of which is a considerable disservice to the life and history of the black South—evoked only in the most rudimentary cliché terms—and to a group of actors, some of whom I have seen be great on other occasions, and all of whom are effective even here: Jamahl Marsh and Isiah Whitlock Jr., as prisoner and teacher, fill the leading roles strongly; wonderful Beatrice Winde gives the godmother riveting determination; John Henry Redwood makes the local minister a remarkable figure, a pious walrus of Dickensian dimensions; and Aaron Harpold turns the (inevitably sympathetic) white assistant jailer into a believable human being, despite having to give a final speech, which you can probably write for yourself, that begins, “He was the bravest man in the room.”
I ought to add that, despite my distaste for the play, I cried then, and at numerous other times during the performance. If you go, you will undoubtedly cry too. A play with the words “death sentence” and “electric chair” in it guarantees tears; to write such a play and make people think instead of crying is more difficult. Anybody who believes it can’t be done should ponder Kia Corthron’s Life by Asphyxiation, produced by Playwrights Horizons several years ago as part of a quadruple bill called Black Ink. Roughly an hour and 40 minutes shorter than A Lesson Before Dying, it, too, deals with a black man on death row in a Southern jail, only with startling images and thoughts instead of cues for tears. It has eaten at my mind since I saw it, and will probably last there long after A Lesson Before Dying is forgotten.