Keegan Theatre The Best ManBy Bob Ashby • Feb 4th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Keegan Theatre: (Info) (Web)
Church Street Theater, Washington DC
Through February 22nd
2:25 with intermission
$35/$30 Senior, Student (Plus Fees)
Reviewed February 2nd, 2014
Once upon a time in political America, party conventions to nominate Presidential candidates were colorful, exciting, and important occasions. The Republican convention split between Taft and Roosevelt partisans in 1912 led to Teddy’s Bull Moose campaign and the election of Woodrow Wilson. The all-time record-setter was the 1924 Democratic convention, which took 103 ballots to nominate John W. Davis (30 years later he was the losing lawyer in Brown v. Board of Education), who Calvin Coolidge promptly defeated. The regular Democrat, Dixiecrat, and Progressive splinters at the Dems’ 1948 convention led pundits to believe that Dewey would readily defeat Truman. The last exciting floor fight over a nominee took place in 1956 when, after Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson left the vice-presidential choice to the convention, crime- and trust-busting Sen. Estes Kefauver defeated a young upstart from Massachusetts, John Kennedy, for the honor of losing to the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket. Since then, save for an occasional interesting speech (e.g., Goldwater in 1964, Obama in 2004) or extraneous event (e.g., the Chicago police riot of 1968), political conventions have declined into the drab, tedious infomercials that they are today.
In the 1960 political convention at the center of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, now playing at the Keegan Theatre, two very different men vie for the presidential nomination. Principled, witty William Russell, the smartest man in the room but one who lacks a political killer instinct (think Adlai Stevenson, with a touch of JFK’s wealthy background and sexual appetite), is played by Mark A. Rhea. His opponent is the ambitious, unscrupulous Joe Cantwell (a main course of Richard Nixon, served with sides of Kefauver and Joe McCarthy), played by Colin Smith. They both seek the endorsement of a Trumanesque former President, Art Hockstader (Kevin Adams), who has doubts about them both. The play does not depict an idealistic, issues-oriented campaign like that of the final season of The West Wing. This is politics red in tooth and claw.
The dramaturg’s program note tells an amusing story concerning the original production of the play, namely that Ronald Reagan was considered to play Russell, but that Vidal felt that he was not presidential enough. Ironically, what turns out to be the major flaw of the Keegan production is that Rhea’s gravitas-challenged Russell is not presidential enough. With a hurried and at times muffled line delivery and a too-narrow emotional range, Rhea does not paint a picture of someone who would seriously contend for high national office. As written, Russell is a character who creates doubt, in Hokstader among others, that he has what it takes lead the country. Rhea’s buttoned-up portrayal never eases that doubt. A reasonable man need not be unimpassioned.
By contrast, Smith’s Cantwell is a thoroughly credible Nixon-like figure (even to his five o’clock shadow), desperate to win and almost preferring to do so by foul means rather than fair. Vidal’s writing of the character, and Smith’s portrayal, get at a key element of Nixon: his bone-deep resentment of Eastern establishment types like the Kennedys to whom life and power came all too easily. For someone like Cantwell, who has had to fight and scrap his way to the top, using Russell’s mental health history to force him out of the race is not only expedient but also satisfying. (Writing in 1960, Vidal was prescient in thinking that a candidate’s previous mental health problems would be political dynamite, as Thomas Eagleton discovered in 1972 when a similar history resulted in his being replaced as George McGovern’s running mate.) One of the strengths of Smith’s performance is that he allows the audience not only to see the unlikable traits of his character but also how Cantwell’s anger and resentment would resonate with voters.
The most powerful character, and most powerful performance, of the play is Adams’ Hockstader. With a folksy demeanor linked to a razor-sharp mind and a keen sense of what it means to acquire and exercise power, Hockstader unflinchingly faces reality, not only that of politics but of his own mortality. This is a character one can believe was a successful president.
Among the supporting cast, Michael Innocenti stands out as a frightened rabbit of a man bearing damaging information about Cantwell, while Rena Cherry Brown is perfect as a party committeewoman determined to make sure that the candidates appeal to “the woman’s point of view,” as she sees it in those pre-Betty Friedan days. Alice Russell (Sheri Herren) is a shy woman, not a natural in politics, who despite her estrangement from her philandering husband is willing to play the supportive political wife. It is not clear whether her calm, even demeanor is a matter of self-possession or depression. Susan Marie Rhea plays Alice’s counterpart, Mabel Cantwell, as a blowsy good ol’ gal who is genuinely in love with her husband, shares his ambitions, and is considerably brighter than she seeks to appear. Of all the characters in the play, Mabel is the one who would be most likely, in today’s world, to appear on a TV reality show.
The set (Michael Innocenti) features a spacious suite in a hotel that is showing its age, complete to the wrinkled fabric on the sofa. The same set is used both for Cantwell’s and Russell’s digs, the difference being indicated be either a Cantwell or Russell banner being lit. The sound design (Dan Deiter) is strong on sounds from the convention floor that the candidates hear directly or on television. The pre-show music emphasizes stirring orchestral music (parts of Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Fanfare for the Common Man are featured, musical quotations that Russell would surely recognize and Cantwell would not), while the intermission and second act music trends to jazz and period popular tunes. The costumes (Erin Nugent) are period-appropriate, down to the men’s narrow ties. Alice’s and Mabel’s dresses are nicely tuned to their characters.
Originally opening in March 1960, The Best Man was likely intended as a commentary on contemporary events. In its revivals, including two Broadway productions this century as well as the current staging at Keegan, the play can’t help becoming something of a nostalgia piece about a style of politicking long since relegated to the history books. But most nostalgia exercises don’t benefit from the dark wit and satirical edge of Vidal, whose palpable delight in skewering people and institutions, along with several strong performances from the Keegan company, keep life in the old script yet.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
- Catherine: Belen Pifel
- Joseph Cantwell: Colin Smith
- Clyde Carlin: David Jourdan
- Ensemble: Jim Howard
- Arthur Hockstader: Kevin Adams
- William Russell: Mark A. Rhea
- Ensemble: Mary Andrus
- Ensemble: Mary Egan
- Sheldon Marcus: Michael Innocenti
- Dr. Artinian: Nello DeBlasio
- Don Blades: Peter Finnegan
- Sue-Ellen Gamadge: Rena Cherry Brown
- Alice Russell: Sheri Herren
- Dick Jensen: Stan Shulman
- Mabel Cantwell: Susan Marie Rhea
- Ensemble: Todd Baldwin
The Production Team
- Director: Christina A. Coakley
- Director: Timothy H. Lynch
- Set Design: Michael Innocenti
- Lighting Design: Katie McCreary
- Costume Design: Erin Nugent
- Costume Assistant: Brittany Harris
- Sound Design: Dan Deiter
- Properties and Set Dressing: Carol H. Baker
- Properties Assistant: Katrina Wiskup
- Dramaturg: Trudi Olivetti
- Stage Manager: Megan Thrift
- Assistant Stage Manager: Jen Grunfeld
Disclaimer: Keegan Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10114.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.