With the 2012 Presidential campaign in full swing Actors’ NET of Bucks County brings us a gem from a recently departed member of the literary elite. It is also a play which concluded a Broadway revival no more than five days before opening here.
Gore Vidal’s THE BEST MAN, is old-school politics at its most rough and tumble. The action of the play takes place in two identical hotel suites during the 1960 political convention of an unnamed political party right here in Philadelphia. In his script Vidal warns us about some of the excesses to which our politics can fall. And in fact he is prescient about many things.
At this convention, unlike the real ones held this season, the nomination for President is up for grabs. No one candidate has a clear majority going into the balloting. Various forms of pressure and inducement are brought-to-bare on the two rival candidates and their campaigns. The screws are turned both from outside influence and inside advice.
Director Joe Doyle has assembled a strong cast who are working with dialogue which is at times somewhat archaic and characters who, today, can seem stereotypical.
The candidate of the erudite (people like Vidal himself?) is former Secretary of State William Russell, portrayed by DeLarme Landes, with some reserve and a bit of pomposity as he drops quotations from famous orators and ancient statesmen. Outwardly he appears to be an almost perfect candidate, honest and upstanding. Landes’ Russell, at times, seems too uncomfortable to be a veteran campaigner.
His opponent is Senator Joseph Cantwell, played by Michael Wurzel. Cantwell is an up from the bootstraps self-made man and a ruthless politician who will stop at nothing to achieve his goal of getting the nomination for himself. He is not above rattling those old bones in Secretary Russell’s closet. Something was missing for me in this character. Perhaps I didn’t feel his threatening demeanor enough.
Our third political heavyweight, brought to life by John Shanken-Kaye, is former President Art Hockstader. He’s an old-fashioned Southern wheeler dealer who holds up his endorsement as a carrot to both of the campaigns. Shanken-Kaye makes you want to check that your pocket hasn’t been picked during his sweeter moments.
The play also gives us two potential First Lady’s, Mr. Russell’s long suffering wife Alice, played effectively by Cathy Liebars, rejoins her husband from their separate lives for the good of the campaign. Alice might even be more remote early on so she has room to play. Senator Cantwell’s wife Mabel is played, sometimes too over the top, by relative newcomer Margaret DeAngelis.
One of the most colorful characters in the play is the political insider Sue-Ellen Gamadge she is a long-time political operative and is the voice for “The Women” in this world of men. She commands attention through an air of gentility. Actors’ NET regular, Virginia Barrie, makes sure Sue-Ellen is heard amongst the crowd.
The set design by James Cordingley often made it difficult to see people from my vantage point in the house and forced some actors to be seen mostly in profile. Perhaps a different arrangement of the bedroom portion of the stage would have allowed for more room for the other space in which most of the important action of the play takes place.
The amount of men’s facial hair and the lack of any hats either worn or held, for the men or women seemed out of place for 1960.
The sound design adds an air of authenticity to the production. The crew does need to make sure that the campaign posters are straight when changed during the quick changes.
THE BEST MAN reminds us that our politics must always be guarded from excesses both from within and without.
THE BEST MAN
By Gore Vidal
September 14 – October 7, 2012
Directed by Joe Doyle
The Actors’ NET of Bucks County
The Heritage Center
635 N. Delmorr Ave.