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Politics Versus Values

In Gore Vidal's 1968 satire, a Republican senator faces a timeless dilemma.

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Weekend TimeLine Theatre Company

Nineteen-sixty-eight was a big year for Gore Vidal. In February he published his best seller Myra Breckinridge—to my mind his finest and funniest novel. And that summer he was transformed from a mere man of letters into a full-blown celebrity when ABC hired him to provide analysis of the presidential nominating conventions, with William F. Buckley as his on-air foil. The duel peaked when Vidal called Buckley a crypto-Nazi, prompting Buckley to call Vidal a queer and threaten to sock him in his "goddamn face." O'Reilly and Olbermann have nothing on these guys.

But '68 also saw Vidal come a cropper with Weekend, a now nearly forgotten comedy that played for a humiliating 21 performances on Broadway that March. Intended as a follow-up to Vidal's 1960 drama The Best Man—a solid hit at 520 performances—Weekend had been well received in its tryout run in Washington, D.C. But Big Apple reviewers panned it, and audiences stayed away. Vidal ascribed its failure to "the ongoing dislike of me in New York City" and to the play's "politics, which were too realistic to be popular."

In fact Weekend's politics aren't realistic at all. The play imagines a Republican senator who decides to stake his run for the 1968 presidential nomination on his opposition to the Vietnam war, only to see his campaign threatened by his son's plan to marry an African-American woman. Such a premise would have seemed unlikely at best at the time—which may be why Vidal channels it into an epigrammatic, lightly satiric comedy of manners in the style of Oscar Wilde. Its humor depends almost entirely on the improbability of its plotting, the archness of its tone, and the shallowness of its characters.

Neither a disaster nor a neglected gem, Weekend begins by attacking easy targets with a parodist's bludgeon rather than a satirist's scalpel, and the disconnect between the play's charged subject matter and droll, aloof style is off-putting. But some sharp twists make the second act worth waiting for. Even with its flaws, the play justifies TimeLine Theatre's decision to mount its Chicago premiere. Though it's largely a time capsule of American politics four decades past, it's interesting for its handling of some surprisingly timely themes in this election year and offers a vehicle for strong comic performances under the direction of Damon Kiely.

Like The Best Man, Weekend focuses on a politician caught between conscience and ambition. (In The Best Man, the hero—a liberal, intellectual, elitist Democrat with a history of marital infidelity, modeled on Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy—must decide whether to release documents suggesting his Nixonesque rival has a homosexual past.) The Republican protagonist of Weekend, Senator MacGruder (Terry Hamilton), masks shrewd pragmatism behind affable, avuncular bluster. Though the words maverick and flip-flopper are never used, both could apply to MacGruder, who declares that "despite my voting record I'm a true conservative." He sees himself as the one man who can unite his party's conservative and liberal wings—represented by Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller, respectively—in order to defeat the Democratic nominee, who he expects will be either Hubert Humphrey or Eugene McCarthy. MacGruder's skills as a gap bridger carry over into his "perfect marriage" to Estelle (Penny Slusher), who knows full well that her husband is sleeping with his secretary, Miss Wilson (Juliet Hart). What binds the trio is their shared ambition to make MacGruder president.

When the MacGruders' son, Beany (Joe Sherman), returns home from studying in London, he arrives wearing the latest Carnaby Street fashions—and escorting his beautiful black bride-to-be, Louise (Mica Cole). Our sympathies are initially directed toward the young couple and their seemingly brave defiance of convention. But gradually it becomes clear that they're very much their parents' children. In its original run Weekend was unfavorably compared to the popular 1967 movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, in which a young white woman's romance with a black man tests the limits of her wealthy parents' liberalism. But it's clear now that Vidal was mocking that movie's idealistic message of tolerance by skewering the attitudes and motives of his lovebirds as well as those of their elders. Louise's parents (Andre Teamer and Joslyn Jones) are political conservatives—her father, a doctor, rails against Medicare as "socialism"—and they're every bit as fearful as the MacGruders of the impact a "mixed marriage" could have on their careers. Beany and Louise are privileged brats all too ready to bite the hands that feed them. Forget black or white—the color that counts here is green.

Of course Vidal also takes pleasure in mocking the unabashed racism of the play's token southerners, MacGruder's colleague Senator Andrews (Tom McElroy) and his wife (Janet Ulrich Brooks, who steals the show with her comically abrasive Eve Arden/Allison Janney timing). Sometimes the jokes are too obvious to be funny: Mrs. Andrews makes a clumsy attempt at gracious small talk by commenting on how handsome "Henry Belafonte" is. Sometimes they're downright offensive: "She's a true daughter of the confederacy," says Beany of Mrs. Andrews. "Secretly she would like to be raped by a large negro."

The play's other targets include hawkish American foreign policy ("It is our painful duty to bring freedom to everybody everywhere," declares Mrs. Andrews), the voting public ("Unlike nature, the American electorate adores a vacuum"), psychiatry, homophobia, the media, and Christianity. The strongest disapproval of Beany and Louise's marriage plans is registered by the MacGruders' black butler, Roger (Sean Nix), a fundamentalist who believes that "miscegenation is against God's law." The only character who has no opinion on the matter is the MacGruders' harried pollster, Norris Blotner (Ian Paul Custer)—whose job, after all, is to record other people's thoughts, not to have any of his own.

Weekend's racial and generational themes resonate with the current presidential campaign, as biracial Barack Obama faces off against Vietnam vet John McCain. But what's most striking about the play is how similar MacGruder's dilemma is to that faced by both Obama and McCain. MacGruder epitomizes political cynicism, yet his goal is noble. "The war must end and I'm the one who can end it," he says. And yet to do that he must reach the White House. The question is, at what cost? Will he throw Beany and Louise under the bus, as both Obama and McCain have done to some of their longtime loyalists? Specifics aside, Weekend is ultimately about a politician who must choose between personal values and politics, which values only victory—and that's a timeless topic.v

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