Best of Enemies (at London’s Young Vic, inspired by the 2015 documentary of the same name) is playwright James Graham’s sprawling, impressionistic theatrical take on the Gore Vidal–William F. Buckley Jr. gladiatorial television debates at the 1968 presidential-nominating conventions. The stage directions describe the playing space as variously a soundstage, a convention arena, a cabaret lounge, and a debating society. “Either way, it’s a bear pit,” Graham writes. A smart cookie looking for the origins of the culture wars, Graham is both dramatizing the watershed moment when America’s public discourse became a blood sport and trapping the audience into a racial argument, which is more or less the same thing.

Back in the day, Buckley was the suave, acceptable Ivy League face of America’s reactionary right wing. His TV show, Firing Line (1966–99), was the longest-running public-affairs show with a single host in the history of American television. Buckley was the whole homophobic-racist-hawkish ball of wax: a supporter of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare, founder of the conservative National Review, the man who in 1957 defended Southern segregation on the grounds that “the white community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”

For such views, in his 1965 University of Cambridge debate, Buckley got his clock cleaned by James Baldwin, who is also an occasional orphic presence in the play. Graham’s most memorable dialogue is curated from the eloquence of others, including Baldwin. On a screen above the stage, the muted Baldwin mouths his searing words from the Cambridge debate, while below Syrus Lowe powerfully speaks them: “I am stating very seriously and this is not an overstatement. That I picked the cotton. And I carried it to market. And I built the railroads, under someone else’s whip, for nothing. For nothing.”

The urgency and eloquence of Baldwin’s argument comes from his having more skin in the game than Buckley does. In Best of Enemies, skin is still in the game, but the game has changed. The part of the oleaginous, effete, sophistical poster boy for the delusion of whiteness is taken by the expert Black actor David Harewood. We are being challenged to accept that race does not matter. Yes, in some dramaturgical cases it doesn’t. Here, however, in this specific historical instance—the slanging match between two vainglorious, privileged avatars of white-American exceptionalism—it does.

As Vidal, Charles Edwards has an easier hand but plays it well, more dandy than grandee. These two renowned pundits—a word whose Sanskrit root is “knowledge owner”—exist with almost no knowledge of what’s going on in the real world outside their Superbia. “My entire life is now devoted to appearing on television: a pleasant alternative to real life,” Vidal quipped in the same year as their debate.

The play picks up the point of this detachment. “The real world … it’s an abstraction,” Baldwin tells Vidal, one Olympian public intellectual to another. By casting the virile, centered, strong-voiced Harewood as the pimp-slappable Buckley, Best of Enemies also becomes an abstraction, doing to the attentive audience what it indicts the TV debates of doing to America’s body politic: substituting sensationalism for sense.

We are being challenged to accept that race does not matter.

The acrimony between Buckley and Vidal was real. At the time, although they were on opposite sides of the political spectrum—latterly Buckley tacked toward the center, Vidal toward the isolationist right—these well-publicized opponents were in many ways alike. Both were well known and propagandists for their franchise; both talked for victory; both were purveyors of aplomb; neither could see a belt without hitting below it. Neither man in his vanity could resist the lure of prime-time exposure.

Over a series of 15-minute debates, in which their supercilious insults drew 10 million viewers, the third-ranked ABC outfoxed the richer networks and won the ratings battle. The battle of perception was won by Vidal, who managed to provoke Buckley out from behind his mask of patrician sangfroid.

The low blow came when the combatants were discussing the Vietcong flag, which had been raised by anti-war protesters in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, where they subsequently were fiercely set upon by the Chicago police. The moderator, Howard K. Smith, asked if raising the Nazi flag during World War II would have earned a similar response.

Vidal: You must realize what some of the political issues are here. There are many people in the United States who happen to believe that the United States’ policy is wrong in Vietnam and the Viet Cong are correct in wanting to organize their country in their own way politically. This happens to be pretty much the opinion of Western Europe and many other parts of the world. If it is a novelty in Chicago, that is too bad. I assume that the point of the American democracy—

Buckley: —and some people were pro-Nazi—

Vidal: —is you can express any view you want—

Buckley: —and some people were pro-Nazi—

Vidal: Shut up a minute!

Buckley: No, I won’t. Some people were pro-Nazi and, and the answer is they were well treated by people who ostracized them. And I’m for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American Marines and American soldiers. I know you don’t care—

Vidal: As far as I’m concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself. Failing that—

Smith: Let’s, let’s not call names—

Vidal: Failing that, I can only say that—

Buckley: Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered …

Buckley’s feral hatred lost him the debate, and something far worse: his practiced persona of equipoise. Buckley’s violent innocence was exposed in front of millions. (ABC canceled its delayed West Coast segment, and put static over the “queer” insult on archival tape.) True to form, Vidal didn’t miss an opportunity to kick a dead horse. “I’ve always tried to treat Buckley like the great lady that he is,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times the morning after the fracas.

Neither could see a belt without hitting below it.

Onstage, the director Jeremy Herrin wrangles the hubbub of Graham’s short expository scenes to build by degrees to the big stage picture of Buckley’s flameout. Here, however, the wallop of Buckley’s fatal eruption is botched for an interesting theatrical reason. Throughout the evening Harewood is allowed to play Buckley mostly on the front foot. Harewood is thrusting and strident where Buckley was provocatively, almost smugly, laid back both figurately and literally in his interviewer’s chair like a coiled snake. But, when Buckley takes Vidal’s bait and lurches at him, he has no higher emotional gear to shift to. As a result, what should be dramatically shocking has as much clout as a popgun. The moment, like the play itself, offers more rhubarb than revelation.

Of the many fractious battles in America—abortion, climate, economy—the most central is the nation’s battle over its story. History is fable agreed upon; and Americans seem unable to agree on a narrative. If the whites are wrong about Black identity, then they are wrong about themselves. The psychological stakes are therefore enormous. In its acrylic recounting of events, Best of Enemies insists on imposing the deliriums of the present on the historical excavations of the past.

At the play’s first beat, as the actors move from the vomitory to the stage, photos of the real Vidal and the real Buckley are flashed on the scrim above them. The images play both as a provocation and a forewarning. The production is telling us that what’s about to happen below is an experiment in releasing the stigma of Blackness. “When the black man’s mind is no longer controlled by the white man’s fantasies, a new balance or what may be described as an unprecedented inequality begins to make itself felt: for the white man no longer knows who he is, whereas the black man knows them both,” Baldwin writes in No Name in the Street.

Best of Enemies is an example of this process of recalibration. But does it add up? Can you play fast and loose with the recent past and claim its purchase on truth? By the production’s woke aesthetic, it would also be as justifiable to cast white actors in August Wilson’s “American Century Cycle,” a monumental achievement written to demonstrate that ordinary Black lives matter. Such a premise is ridiculous; it would make nonsense of the plays and Black experience. The same is true of Best of Enemies and its treatment of a contentious white historical figure. It’s one thing to stimulate the imagination; it’s another to beggar it.

John Lahr is, among other things, a columnist for AIR MAIL