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Art Southwest Florida’s review of ‘The Best Man’


best-man-02As the November 8 election draws near, politics monopolizes the air waves and preoccupies everyone’s mind. In keeping with the season, Lab Theater opens a revival of Gore Vidal’s political dramedy, The Best Man, on October 7. It’s an ambitious undertaking that’s characterized by inspired acting and a sobering trip back in time that underscores how far our political process has come and how little things have really changed.

The action takes place in Philadelphia in 1960 at the nominating convention of an unnamed political party. best-man-15sThis is not a modern-day coronation where a candidate has already amassed the delegate count needed for his party’s nomination. This is a brokered or open convention that may require multiple ballots before a nominee is chosen. And the two leading candidates for their party’s nomination are William Russell and Joe Cantwell.

Russell is a former Secretary of State. Cantwell is a self-made man who holds a seat in the United States Senate. John Repa portrays the decent, contemplative, magnanimous Russell who drives his campaign manager crazy by quoting Shakespeare and Bertrand Russell to the press at every turn. Paul Graffy excels as the mercurial, self-absorbed, diabolically ruthless Joe Cantwell who will say and do best-man-17sanything to become the country’s next president. As it turns out, Cantwell has plunked down some coin to obtain his opponent’s medical records, and they reveal he’s had a mental breakdown, contemplated suicide and has manic-depressive tendencies. Simply put, Cantwell threatens to provide a copy of the damning psychiatric report to every single delegate unless Russell withdraws his name from consideration. But Russell has his own report in best-man-42sthe form of a court martial transcript and the testimony of a former Army mate that suggests that Cantwell may have had a gay relationship with a lieutenant in his command while they were stationed in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. Now Russell finds himself in a political/moral quandary. Does he go public with the accusation and if he does, is he really any better than Cantwell himself?

Given our current political climate and the hundreds of millions being spent on negative campaign best-man-45sads, it’s difficult to imagine a time when a politician with aspirations to the country’s highest office would hesitate to smear a political opponent. It’s equally unfathomable that a candidate might say, as William Russell does, “I don’t believe in polls. Accurate or not. And if I may bore you with one of my little sermons: Life is not a popularity contest; neither is politics. The best-man-51simportant thing for any government is educating the people about the issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion.”

In the microcosm of The Best Man, Russell and Cantwell are not vying for public opinion but rather for the endorsement of former president, Art Hockstader. Michael Hennessey is powerful in this role. His character is an unconscienced pragmatist power broker who could care less about best-man-57smorals or ethics. For him, the best man is the one who will wield power the most effectively, a capability that presupposes he is an astute judge of character. Cantwell does not possess this requisite trait, but by the same token, Hockstader won’t back a man who is governed by idealism or principle. And so if Russell wants Hockstader’s support, he has to be willing to play political hardball, which is exactly what his long-suffering wife and perpetually flummoxed campaign manager want him to do.

The play presents an appetizing contrast of politics then and now. But even the most apolitical theater goer will like this production because, in the final analysis, The Best Man is more a morality play best-man-63sthan it is a political expose’. At the heart of The Best Man are insights into what makes motivates people. What makes people tick.

Although this is a production dominated by strong male actors and equally strong male performances, the women in this production are equally impressive in the admittedly limited roles that Vidal gives them. Joann Haley is superb as the aggrieved Alice Russell, who has been estranged and living apart from her husband because of his best-man-70spenchant for philandering. Even though he’s done her dirty, she believes he will make a great president and so she’s willing to live a very public lie in order to advance his political career. For her part, Gerrie Benzing is remarkable as Mabel Cantwell, a Southern Belle Barbie who adores her husband but uses alcohol to blunt the knowledge that she will always be second to her husband’s love of power.

Even the tertiary characters in The Best Man are best-man-85smeaty and well-developed. You will enjoy Scott Carpenter and Jack Weld as Russell and Cantwell’s campaign managers, and Mike Dinko is terrific as the sniveling ex-soldier who is prepared to tell all about Cantwell’s homosexual trysts during World War II.

Whether it’s political themes, psychology or the beautiful choreography of acting by a large and talented cast, there’s something for everyone in Lab Theater’s The Best Man. But no matter your personal bent, you will utterly marvel over the many, many instances in which playwright Gore Vidal predicted the culmination-14sissues that play across our televisions screens and computer monitors each night as we watch, transfixed, the train wreck that is the presidential contest between Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and even “What is Aleppo?” Gary Johnson. It’s small wonder that The Best Man was nominated for six Tony Awards (including Best Play), had an original run on Broadway of 520 performances, culmination-19sand was made into a movie in 1964.

Do not miss this play!

See below for play dates, times and ticket information.


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