“The Best Man,” written by Gore Vidal and set in 1960, is a political fable with strong characters and terrific dialogue—dramatic, but laced with ironic humor. It’s a good, solid story that builds to a gripping climax and ends with a surprising, almost uplifting twist. But the play is ultimately scary because in the midst of a presidential campaign half a century later, it is relevant. Politics is still politics.
The play has been translated to film and was recently revived on Broadway. The San Luis Obispo Little Theatre production, directed by Brent Keast, takes it back to its roots and casts it with strong actors. The adversaries are William Russell, former secretary of state and governor of Rhode Island, and Joseph Cantwell, an ambitious (ruthless if necessary) senator. They are vying for their party’s presidential nomination at the convention in Philadelphia. To put it mildly, they are not friends.
The setting, against a backdrop of a huge American flag, is their hotel rooms, which are quickly transformed from one to the other with a change of bedspreads and rearrangement of furniture. Russell and his wife Alice are estranged, but are sticking together to solidify his image as a stable family man. Cantwell’s wife Mabel is as ambitious as he is. Both men are courting ex-president Arthur Hockstader for his endorsement. As the plot thickens, dirty tricks become the catalyst for high drama.
Daniel Freeman develops Russell as a complex character. He comes across to some as “a fancy Dan from the East,” and tends to use big words and intellectualize, traits that are not necessarily attractive to “the self-made man,” which his opponent Cantwell claims to be. Cantwell, played with gusto by Chad Stevens, is self-centered to the point of being obnoxious, always interrupting and ignoring other people.
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The wives’ roles are stereotypical, but also well acted. Mabel Cantwell, played by Brooke Foster, is blonde, slim, pretty, and overbearing as she brags about her husband and extols traits he doesn’t have. She struts and swishes, wearing bright, clingy dresses. Janice Peters as Alice Russell is attractive but plain by comparison. She has gray hair and wears tan and brown tailored skirts and blazers that hide her ample figure. Alice is as low key as her appearance, but as she is confronted with Mabel’s pointed sarcasm, she finds herself starting to enjoy the game, to her own surprise.
The most colorful character—and outstanding performance—is that of former President Hockstader. Ed Galena inhabits the curmudgeonly old politician, who has some of the best lines in the play as he pontificates on politics and power, tending to agree with Cantwell’s Machiavellian point of view. These quotes are the heart of the playwright’s observations, and only too true. Galena has been an acting coach in the Atascadero school district, and those students are fortunate, indeed, to have such a good actor as a teacher.
Elaine Fournier, who teaches drama at Cuesta College, plays Sue Ellen Gamadge, a party worker who gives Russell advice on how to woo women voters. She is good as a self-important dowager who appears to be above the fray.
The two men’s secretary/assistants are quite different. Todd Andoli, a senior in Cal Poly Theatre, plays the take-charge “manager” of Russell, and John Carroll is the “protector” of Cantwell. Johannes Beals plays a sleazy senator, and Jeff Zahn is good as a pivotal character in the dirty tricks department.
The dialogue, sprinkled with mentions of politicians of the day—Richard Nixon, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson—is surprisingly current, such as the need to mention God in campaigning. Didn’t we just hear that? And the question of candidates talking about personalities rather than issues is a pet peeve in 2012 as it was then. The focus for both men is getting on the ticket. There’s no mention of what either will do once he gets there, no suggestion of why they want to be president, other than ego fulfillment.
The ultimate question the playwright asks is where does morality fit into the equation? The dialogue asks, “Decency? At a convention?” and “Since when is truth a deterrent?”
He gives the scenario a surprising final, improbable twist that leaves the audience asking, “Does the best man win?”