Backstage at 'The Best Man'

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Before the parties sucked all the spontaneity out of them, political conventions were the ultimate in reality TV : no-holds-barred, high stakes contests with an uncertain outcome and a huge national audience. This is the setting for Gore Vidal's "The Best Man," written 40 years ago yet still remarkably timely in its Broadway revival. Fighting for their party's presidential nomination are Secretary of State William Russell, a high-minded patrician liberal who believes politics is a process of educating people about the issues, and Senator Joe Cantwell, an expert at grabbing headlines with sensational investigations who will go to any length to win. He threatens to destroy Russell by releasing his medical records. Russell's team has dug up some dirt of its own on Cantwell, but Russell has doubts about sinking to his opponent's level by using it.

Speaking before a preview performance last week, Vidal says he was inspired by the politics of 1960, when Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Hamlet, battled Young Turk Jack Kennedy for the party's presidential nomination. "You have a very noble and eloquent and witty man, a superior man, who is just a ditherer, to be blunt about it, up against a real political operator, on the order of Nixon. So we have a Stevensonian character and a Nixonian character. But they're not thinly disguised portraits, they're archetypes. Just for fun I made the political operator with a totally virtuous private life, perfect husband, everything, and the good guy has the biggest mess of a private life going on."

Vidal knows politics first-hand. He grew up in Washington, D.C., where his grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, served as senator from Oklahoma; Vidal's father was FDR's director of air commerce. His stepsister was Jackie Kennedy, and through her he became a friend of Jack Kennedy. Vidal himself was an unsuccessful candidate for a congressional seat in 1960, a race in which he was endorsed by friend and neighbor Eleanor Roosevelt. Some of "The Best Man" came straight out of this background. "I showed the play to Jack [Kennedy] and he gave me a couple of lines," Vidal recalls. "There's one I have Senator Carlin say :'I just want you to know I'm a hundred percent behind you. Just call me for anything you want.' Jack said you know you're dead when they tell you that. That's the big brush-off."

Vidal's intimate knowledge of politics and politicians informs the cast, as well as the script. Mark Blum, who plays Russell's campaign manager, recounts an anecdote about mudslinging Gore told: "At one point Jackie Kennedy said to Gore, 'I know we have this whole big list of stuff on Nixon and I don't know why we just don't use it.' And Gore said 'Well, Jackie, you better be pretty damn glad we don't, because if we use ours, they use theirs.'"

These stories — Spalding Gray, who plays Russell, calls it "creative gossip" — make the script more alive and present for the actors. "When you have Gore around all of a sudden you're one degree of separation from all of this American history that he's writing about in this play," says Ethan McSweeney, the 29-year-old director making his Broadway debut with "The Best Man." (McSweeney, incidentally, is a Washingtonian whose family is friendly with that other Gore, the one running for president.)

Chris Noth, who plays Cantwell and is better known as Mr. Big in HBO's "Sex and the City," says rather than dating the material, events have freshened "The Best Man." "Our production is much more subtle than it was in the '60s because of what we've been through. We've seen it all — we've seen a president taken out of office, we've seen a president assassinated, we've seen Clinton." Vidal says he likes that subtler touch. Even if in the end, the play is a bit of a period piece, a remnant of a time when conventions actually mattered, it still remains relevant to today.