The Best Man | Remy Bumppo Theatre Company

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant | Trap Door Theatre

WHEN Through 11/5: Wed-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 2:30 PM

WHERE Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln

PRICE $35-$40

INFO 773-871-3000

It’s been nearly 50 years since The Best Man debuted, and in some ways Gore Vidal’s biting drama about two presidential aspirants is showing its age. Set during a political convention in Philadelphia, it’s peppered with references to hot-button issues of the time: whether a Catholic could win, whether the United States should recognize “Red China,” the political dangers of supporting birth control, and the importance of politicians’ wives (and their hairdos) to the “women’s vote.” And the allusions to William Jennings Bryan, Henry Luce, Joseph Alsop, Bertrand Russell, and other heavyweights may fly over the heads of some.

But Vidal’s theme rings louder and clearer than ever: as the protagonist laments, politics is focused on “gossip instead of issues, personalities instead of policies.” This 1960 Broadway hit proves that, in politics, personality is the issue. William Russell, a former secretary of state, is ethical, intelligent, witty, sensitive, and passionately committed to the idea that a leader should actually lead rather than chase after public approval. His rival, Senator Joe Cantwell, is a scheming pseudopopulist trickster whose ruthlessness is exacerbated by priggish self-righteousness. Between these polar opposites stands ex-president Art Hockstader, a wily old “hick” (think Harry Truman) whose endorsement will send one contender to the White House and the other into obscurity. That Hockstader is terminally ill adds urgency to the high-stakes situation.

Russell–modeled in part on 1956 Democratic presidential candidate (and former Illinois governor) Adlai Stevenson, in part on John Kennedy, and in part on Vidal himself–is without a doubt the best man. But is he the best man for the job? Conscientious to a fault, he’s also an indecisive egghead unable to act swiftly even when it’s crucial. And he has a history of psychiatric treatment, which Cantwell (a composite suggested by Richard Nixon and Bobby Kennedy) plans to expose as evidence of “mental illness.” When Russell acquires evidence indicating Cantwell is a “degenerate” (i.e., gay), he must decide whether to leak the information. The rough-and-tumble of politics is an essential test of character–can Russell take the heat, and should he fight fire with fire?

Despite its rather stilted construction, the play is well made, building to a plot twist that still provokes gasps. Vidal’s pointed, sometimes bitchy dialogue enhances its conflict, rooted in the characters’ complexities and contradictions. And references not only to homosexuality but to White House womanizers and marriages of convenience are reminders that scandal is part of the territory. (A question about sexual indiscretion–“You haven’t gone and written any letters like some fellows do?”–garnered a hearty laugh last weekend in the wake of the damning Mark Foley news.)

In Remy Bumppo Theatre Company’s solid, well-acted revival, directed by James Bohnen, David Darlow fully inhabits the role of Russell, a genial yet aloof man who cares deeply for the people but can never really be of them. As Cantwell, James Krag conveys the predatory amorality behind the beaming smile. Gene Janson’s jovial Hockstader is a cross between Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. And though women took a backseat in the world Vidal depicts, the play provides meaty roles for Annabel Armour as Russell’s chilly but dutiful wife, Linda Gillum as Cantwell’s bubbleheaded mate, and Deanna Dunagan as queenly kingmaker Mrs. Gamadge–“the only known link between the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan,” as Russell quips. Tim Morrison’s hotel-room set, with its wonderfully ugly flowered carpet, serves not only as a meeting room but as the suites of both Russell and Cantwell, reminding us that the long road to the White House is dotted with dreary lookalike stops. Intelligent and suspenseful, The Best Man is thought-provoking entertainment for this election year.