“Nothing’s changed,” remarked a member of the audience during the intermission of the Adobe Theater’s revival of Gore Vidal’s 1960 political thriller, “The Best Man.” “It’s all still the same.” Perhaps the lesson of this play is not far from the lessons of 2016: Politics has always been a dirty business, and its truths are often buried beneath layers of lies.
The drama’s triangular battle between idealism, barbarism and pragmatism could in some senses be ripped from the current political headlines. But the play also has a special tone and a wealth of details that anchor it in the battles of 1960—battles that directly and indirectly shaped America over the past half-century and continue to do so.
The scene is the summer of 1960 on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. The play, almost a roman a clef, focuses on three characters: a former President resembling Harry Truman; a liberal icon who, like Adlai Stevenson, is a high-minded intellectual; and a tough, brutal street fighter who combines elements of Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Alternately supporting and thwarting them are the candidates’ wives and campaign managers as well as a veteran Democratic national committeewoman.
I had heard and read much about this play over many decades (it has been revived in New York during three election years) although I had never seen it. Gore Vidal was an alumnus of my own school and only a few years ahead of me. I had once gone over to the school library and checked out everything they had by him. Continuing until his death in 2012, I followed his controversial career as novelist, essayist, political commentator with fascination.
I had always thought “The Best Man” was a kind of stark morality play between good and evil incarnate, intellectual nobility versus ignorant corruption. But seeing the play, I saw a different story. It might have been Vidal’s intention, or it might be due to the strength of a bravura performance by veteran Philip J. Shortell as ex-President Arthur Hockstader, but Hockstader emerges on stage as the center of this drama: an old man who has seen a lot and knows a lot, who puts pragmatism above ideology. At one point Hockstader tells Senator Joseph Cantwell (admirably depicted in all his hyper-ambitious repulsiveness by Matt Heath) that he does not have any problem with the fact that he’s a bastard; what he objects to is that he’s a stupid bastard.
When Secretary Russell (Vernon Poitras) refuses to stoop to corruption (blackmailing his opponent) to win the nomination, Hockstader warns him against feeling superior: “To want power is corruption already.” Russell in fact is a more complex character than first appears. He is high-minded but he is also pompous and self-righteous, a sex addict and perhaps mentally unstable, according to a stolen psychiatric report.
Poitras does a convincing job of portraying this stiff, unbending figure with proclivities for literary citations and hectoring everyone around him. (This, in fact, was nothing like the real Adlai Stevenson, who was a modest man of wit and empathy whose most famous photo showed a hole in his sock.)
In 1960, women did not play major roles in national politics, but they do in Vidal’s play. Secretary Russell’s wife Alice is performed by Colleen McClure as a woman of dignity, restraint and intelligence. Her counterpart and foil is Cantwell’s wife Mabel (Ronda Lewis) who looks and sounds as if she is an air head who cares about nothing but clothes and appearances but who turns out to have a talent for nasty intrigue.
Most interesting of the women however is the national committeewoman, Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge. In the skilled hands of Linda Williams, she is part shrew, part southern belle, part wise old politician. Russell describes her as the party’s link between the Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP.
Under the capable direction of Joe Feldman, the dozen actors keep the drama in motion at a fast pace. Despite the innumerable historical allusions, the play is readily accessible to those with only a faint idea of 1960’s hand-to-hand combat among a menagerie of outsized personalities including Truman, Kennedy, Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller.
“The Best Man” continues at the Adobe Theater, 9813 4th St. NW in Albuquerque, through Oct. 23, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For more information go to adobetheater.org or call 505-898-9222.