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Theater Review: The Best Man, Political Flashback and Prophecy

Candidates Joe Cantwell (John Ruby) and William Russell (Mark Belnick) vie for a presidential nomination.

The Best Man takes place behind the scenes of a 1976 political convention, in the hotel suites of two finalists vying for the nomination and counting delegates. First up is William Russell (Mark Belnick), a bland, Cromwell-quoting patrician, unhappy that his inevitable path is being blocked by an undeserving upstart. Russell and his team are soliciting an endorsement from former president Arthur Hockstader (a very presidential Ian Patrick Williams).

But the ex-prez is also being courted by that upstart, the younger, more charming Joe Cantwell (John Ruby). The action cuts between the two candidates’ suites, a single set where political posters swap out and twin beds move together and apart depending on the candidate. As the play progresses, the politics get dirtier and the wagons circle in an ever-tightening squeeze.

Gore Vidal originally wrote The Best Man in response to the 1960 presidential election. It took direct aim at JFK via Cantwell and exalted Adlai Stevenson (with maybe a touch of the actual candidate, Nixon) via Russell.  Vidal rewrote the play in 1962, and again in 1977, but despite this production’s spot-on ’70s elements of décor, dress and drink, the play feels firmly rooted in the earlier time. The occasional contemporary reference, such as Nixon’s 1974 resignation, New York City’s 1975 bankruptcy, and a joke calling a national committeewoman the only known link between George Wallace and George McGovern – both out of the news after 1972 – don’t help, especially more than 40 years after the Bicentennial.

When that national committeewoman, Mrs. Gamadge (Rachel Winfree), appears, she dominates the proceedings. The men may be playing the biggest of power games, but it’s the women who have the more interesting power struggles, and personalities. Mrs. Gamadge, along with aspiring First Lady Mabel Cantwell (Aubrey Saverino) and, to a lesser degree, the oft-silenced, Pat Nixonian Alice Russell (Martha Hackett) are colorful and complex. Despite being relegated to hand-holders and fashion show attendees, they often display a deeper understanding of political realities than the hacks and flacks–and even the candidates themselves.

The play is undeniably relevant, since the exposure of presidential candidates’ sexual exploits and personal failings remains timeless political fodder…although, of course, not the threat it used to be.  Several of the lines foreshadow events of decades to come, including one about mailing the White House to the Russians “brick by brick” and the rhetorical question, “We don’t want an immature President, do we?”

As Russell, Belnick comes across as a presidential hopeful lacking in charm and gravitas, Ruby channels Beto O’Rourke and the support players are interchangeable. By contrast, the three women shine, and it’s hard not to wish for an alternative reality where Mrs. Gamadge takes control, the women move to the forefront and the men head to a bar to reminisce about their days of glory.

Scenic Designer Brad Bentz bends space on the impressive set while Director Gary Lee Reed moves the large cast through with humor and efficiency.

Michael William Thompson, Paul Morris III, Edwin Scheibner, Martha Hackett, Rachel Winfree, Aubrey Saverino in The Best Man.

The Best Man is performed at 8:00pm Fridays and Saturdays, 3:00pm on Sundays. It was scheduled to run through Dec. 8 at the Lounge Theatre, but closed unexpectedly after the Nov. 3 performance.


Additional Theater Notes:

Pacific Resident Theatre’s production of the world premiere Andy Warhol’s Tomato has been extended several times and is currently running through Nov. 24, 2019. Following the Nov. 10th matinee, there will be an exhibit of photography of Andy Warhol by Sunny Bak, a Venice based photographer. See the show at 3:00pm and the exhibit at 4:30. There will be refreshments and an opportunity to meet the actors and director of the show. Tickets are available here.

Mike Birbiglia is generating extended laughter (and a few short sobs) in The New One at the Ahmanson Theatre through Nov. 24, 2019. The show seemed a surprising choice for the venue but standing ovations validate it – as did its multiple awards when it played in New York. Tickets are available here.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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