The Best Man

Gore Vidal
Playhouse Theatre

Martin Shaw and Jeff Fahey Credit: Pamela Raith
Honeysuckle Weeks and Maureen Lipman Credit: Pamela Raith
The Cast of The Best Man Credit: Pamela Raith

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, which premièred in New York in 1960 with Melvyn Douglas and Frank Lovejoy in the lead roles, ran for 520 performances.

It has been regularly revived in America during election years ever since. It is a period piece which doesn’t date. Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson played the lead roles in the 1964 film version.

Simon Evans’s production is its very first performance In London.

The Best Man is about the political infighting, the battle for the nomination for President. The setting is a Party Convention in Philadelphia. The question is, how far are the contestants willing to go to gain power?

In 1960, the contestants were John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson.

Gore Vidal (1925-2012), political commentator, public intellectual, prolific novelist and essayist, author of Myra Breckinridge, famed for his epigrammatic wit, was born into a political family and stood for office twice. He writes with the authority of an insider.

Does the best man always get to the White House?

Martin Shaw is well cast as the intellectual candidate, a man of principle, a liberal of the old school, an idealist, a role, which has its roots in Adelaide Stevenson, the great President the USA never had.

Jeff Fahey is well cast as the ruthless rival, an unscrupulous hypocrite, prepared to go to any dirty length to get the nomination. His role has traits of Bobby Kennedy Senator McCarthy and JFK.

Both men need the endorsement of the dying ex-President, a man who enjoys nothing better than a dirty, low-down, ugly political fight. The role has traits of Harry S Truman and was recently played by James Earl Jones in New York.

Jack Shepherd as the ex-President steals every scene he is in and is a delight to watch. He has all the best lines: “it’s not that I mind you being a bastard, it’s your being such a stupid bastard I object to.”

Shaw and Fahey quite rightly shared their curtain-call with Shepherd, knowing how much their scenes depended on him.

The political campaigning, the mud-throwing, the corrupt deals, the smears and the blackmail will appeal to audiences who enjoy The House of Cards and West Wing.

Since the nomination is to be fought on personalities rather than policies, the question The Best Man asks is whether “the good man” is too good to be President and whether “the bad man” in fact has the very qualities needed for the job.

Bertrand Russell said, “people in a democracy tend to think they have less to fear from a stupid man than an intelligent one.” Actually, it is the other way round.

With Donald Trump in The White House, this is a particularly good moment to be reviving Gore Vidal’s play.

The Best Man is good popular entertainment. Efficiently directed by Simon Evans and at a sharp pace, the tension as to who is going to win is maintained until the very last minute. The twist is as surprising as it is right. 

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch