Like all historical plays, James Graham’s latest, now playing at the Young Vic in London, is as much about the time in which it’s written as the time depicted. His version of the 2015 documentary “Best of Enemies” stages 1968’s legendarily vicious TV debates between the foremost public intellectuals of the day: left-wing novelist and screenwriter Gore Vidal and arch-conservative William F. Buckley. But although Graham, Britain’s most engaging and successful political dramatist, is clearly fascinated by the content, he’s actually more interested in the form. He’s writing about the power — for good and ill — of television.
ABC was in trouble. Their news coverage was running a poor third in the battle for ratings when the question of how to cover the Republican and Democratic conventions in Miami and Chicago arose. The then-revolutionary answer was to have the events assessed daily, not by reporters but by prominent voices of the left and right who would debate the issues nightly, unscripted and live.
Graham ups the ante by opening with the extraordinary aftershock that follows the debates’ most notorious and inflammatory exchanges. All hell breaks loose in the production gallery with phone lines jammed with enraged callers. “Sponsors?” yells ABC News president Elmer Lower (magnificently full-throttle Kevin McMonagle). “Forget that. My mom just called!”
That flash of humor is typical of Graham’s approach. The words of the debates are verbatim but everything surrounding them — and there’s a lot of it — are his, and they’re peppered with wit in both the writing and the snappy playing of director Jeremy Herrin’s energetic production.
Even with Herrin’s sure hand with pacing and Bunny Christie’s succession of simple set pieces nimbly wheeled on and off, much of the first half gets bogged down in set-up with the machinations of the network and the social and political history of the 1960s, from Bobby Kennedy’s assassination through the Vietnam War protests. But exposition is off-set by the pleasures of watching the superb ensemble of eight actors racing in and out of Christie’s perfect period costumes, nailing everyone from an advice-giving James Baldwin (a gloriously languid Syrus Lowe) to Aretha Franklin (Justina Kehinde showing off one helluva voice) via a perfectly po-faced Tom Godwin as Andy Warhol. John Hodgkinson is terrific, doubling as calm TV anchor Howard K. Smith and Chicago’s incandescent, bully-boy Mayor Daley.
But the meat of the play — think “Frost/Nixon” with added firepower — is the ceaseless friction between the two men who, as Buckley’s wife Patricia (Clare Foster) realizes, are very close to being the same person: all-knowing, smug and used to winning every argument.
From a supercilious smile to icy anger and back again, wonderfully easeful Charles Edwards is every inch the droll Vidal. Cast excitingly against type, David Harewood plays whiter-than-white Buckley almost purring with power, stemming from lofty entitlement and rage against Vidal’s manner and sexuality. They sit in chairs, but their fascinating sparring, fueled by hatred, plays like a prizefight.
But although both actors rightly tower over the proceedings, the play’s troubles come with Graham’s editorializing. The ratings game was won but what, he asks, was lost? His valid argument speaks directly to the present but it feels too on the nose when he openly draws a parallel, even though he frames it as a joke, to a political leader winning office due to TV fame.
For so sophisticated a writer, there are surprising lapses in subtlety. He and Herrin entertainingly show how this audience-grabbing moment of TV gold brought a wrecking ball to television and to democracy. But a little too much is stated rather than suggested. In his stronger work — “Ink”, “This House” — his perspective is there to be gleaned. Here, it’s spelled out.