The Best Man: Exploring a Turning Point in Presidential Politics

Bay City Players Present Gore Vidal’s Tony Award Winning Masterpiece About Ethics & Morality in the Cultural Fabric of America

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre,   From Issue 823   By: Robert E Martin

25th February, 2016     0

The late author & playwright Gore Vidal was perhaps one of America’s last great ‘Men of Letters’ and an innovative intellectual that wrote 32 novels and 15 plays prior to his passing in 2012, including such timeless works as Ben Hur, Suddenly, Last Summer, Is Paris Burning? and Caligula. Known for his patrician manner and incisive wit, as a political commentator and essayist, Vidal’s’ principal themes involved United States history and society, focusing especially upon how the militaristic foreign policy of the ‘national security’ state vitiated the the cultural fabric of America into that of a decadent empire.

The Best Man is a 1960 political character study that Vidal wrote, which premiered on Broadway and was nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Play. The plot focuses upon the Presidential primaries in the summer of 1960 in Philadelphia and tracks the contrasts between an ethical man running for the Presidential nomination running against an ‘unscrupulous’ man. Populist southern senator Joseph Cantwell is a “bigot and a charlatan”, while William Russell, who prides himself upon his honesty, is the liberal candidate, “likeable, forceful & humorous.” Both candidates try to get the endorsement of the popular outgoing president, who enjoys not telling them which one he’ll endorse.

Bay City Players is busily preparing for an upcoming series of performances of The Best Man, which will play from March 4-6 & 11-14th and is currently being translated in rehearsals for the stage under the meticulous care of director Randall Manetta.

At the time this play originally premiered in 1960, it was widely recognized that it was written as a deliberate parallel of the upcoming 1960 Democratic Convention, fashioned as a scathing attack on the Kennedys, whom Vidal detested; and also serving as a tribute to Adlai Stevenson, who Vidal admired and supported. The principal characters in this work represent Vidal’s ten view of the main players in the Democratic Party, only with different names.

Interestingly enough, in 1960 Vidal was also a Democratic candidate for Congress, for the 29th Congressional District of New York State, who lost to the Republican candidate by a 57-43 percent margin. Vidal also campaigned in 1982 against Jerry Brown, the incumbent Governor of California, in the Democratic primary election for the U.S. Senate; so in addition to a lifetime of study, Vidal also participated as an actual player in the political process.

Given this background to the play, what parallels does Director Randall Manetta see to today's contemporary political landscape in this current election year; and does he feel that the themes explored within this work translate well to contemporary times?

“Something that immediately interested me when reading the script was that this show is actually not very political,” states Manetta. “It's about two presidential hopefuls, and the lengths they will go for power. In that sense, this play does translate to contemporary times. A simple struggle for power is almost as timeless as it gets. A number of issues in the show are referenced that are still relevant today, but much of the context is totally different.”

“Parties holding primaries at their convention was a much different environment than what we have today,” he continues. “Today it's about getting as many commercials out there as possible - witty sound bites and controversial statements. But in 1960? It was exclusively backroom deals, bartering and party unity. Once a party presented a candidate, that was the candidate to support. It's totally different now. What changed all this? Television. Because of this, presenting The Best Man as anything other than a period piece would be disingenuous. Issues at the time may show a parallel, but otherwise this play must be presented as if everything is in the 1960's.” 

In terms of selecting actors for The Best Man, the audition process resulted in a cast selection comprised mostly of veterans, with a handful of newcomers.  “As far as leads go, there are two men whose goals drive the show, states Randall.  “William Russell (Kurt Miller) and Joseph Cantwell (Keith Schnabel) both want their parties’ nomination. Each scene switches between their hotel rooms, so most of the scenes focus on one of the men at a time. This enables both men's group of supporters and family members to establish a strong presence.”

“Most of the actors are double casted to also act as reporters during a handful of scenes, notes Manetta.  “The audition process was typical for a theater like Bay City Players - we host a "Cold Read", which consists of selecting a handful of scenes in advance, and providing scripts to any interested actors to stand on the stage and read. Typically, they try to act the scene out to some extent, and it's always great to see what kind of creativity the actor can bring to the show. I was mostly looking for chemistry between actors. I knew fairly early on who my two candidates would be, and from there it was seeing how the other actors worked with them. I can't stress enough that these events are completely open to anyone who is interested in performing.” 

As a director, what are some of the qualities & themes embedded within this production that Manetta is attempting to emphasize or focus attention upon?  “As stated earlier, television changed everything,” he reflects. “Take Nixon and Kennedy for example - folks on the radio were certain Nixon won, while people watching on TV thought Kennedy won. The advent of the televised debate was a game changer. That's something I want to emphasize in the show. We're filming some segments to play in between scene changes, and trying to use video in a fun, respectful way.”

Given the dynamics of the 1960 election year, what does Randall feel audiences will find most engaging about this production?  “This is an intelligent, accessible play. Our characters are all very human, and while this is a drama - it can be quite funny. The characters’ utter sincerity throughout absurd situations, which causes a lot of laughs. I'm a firm believer that if you can make the audience laugh, you can make them cry. I don't like to have one without the other. I think the audience will enjoy the simple drama between two intelligent men, and get a few laughs in as well. I'm hoping there are a few questions and themes they choose to ruminate on when they leave, but I don't think it's fair to ask an audience to get too cerebral about a show without giving them a good time in the first place.”

Were there any particular challenging components involved with rendering this work for regional audiences? “Stage culture is typically superstitious - and I'm a little nervous because everything has been perfect so far,” admits Randall. “My set was designed months in advance, my actors are terrific and my artistic team has been on the ball on everything. This can only mean something terrible is on the horizon, and I'll be happy to let you know when that happens!  But seriously, I credit the smoothness thus far to the great work ethic at Bay City Players, and the terrific office that keeps everyone on the same page.”

While this is a good time to stage a show like this (due to the election cycle) there's always the fear that politics are "saturated",” concludes Randall.  “We hear about this stuff every day. With a number of 24-hour news networks, it's almost impossible to get any space away from the political process.”

“I imagine someone reading this might think to themselves "Well, I've had enough of politics" and I could understand that. I really want to stress, however, that this show is essentially about power, not politics.”

“What kind of person would want to be the president in the first place? I'll leave my favorite quote from the show, one that I think perfectly encapsulates the purpose of the show. "Power is not a toy we give to good children". 

Bay City Players production of ‘The Best Man’ will play from March 4-6 & 11-13. Tickets are now on sale at the Bay City Players Box Office or by phoning 989-893-9555 or visiting



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