Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The premise is fairly simple, set at a Philadelphia hotel in 1960 where the presidential convention is taking place. The idealistic, womanizing Secretary of State William Russell competes against the eager and very slick family man Joseph Cantwell for both the support of former President Arthur Hockstader and key delegates to earn their party's presidential nomination. Name calling, scandal, mudslinging, double dealing and ambition face off against party principles and the heart and soul of American politics.
While Vidal's dialogue is well written, it may come across as not quite as tightly composed when compared against modern political dramas such as "The West Wing" and "House of Cards." However, the play does feature distinguishable characters and a fairly edge-of-your-seat plot with twists and turns aplenty and an ending that delivers in both its unpredictability and its honesty.
Director Jeanna Michaels has assembled a very competent cast to portray the vast range of characters. Her vibrant staging injects a feeling of life into the static set by Jeff Caplan and Judy Muller, which works well as the two hotel suites of both candidates. In addition, the fine use of black and white video footage by Earle Greenberg helps to provide a focus and swiftness during the scene changes, portraying various press conferences and images of the convention. Diane Brenner's costumes feature some excellent period perfect dresses for the women and numerous suits and tuxedos for the men.
Steve Murphy and Matthew Cary portray Russell and Cantwell, respectively, and they are both well equipped to deliver the necessary gravitas of these vastly different opponents. Murphy is excellent as the well-born, well-educated, stately and idealistic Russell who believes it is important to stand on his principles and keep personalities out of politics, while Cary is equally adept at ensuring there is a realism beneath the hot-tempered, ambitious, unscrupulous, and slightly sanctimonious Cantwell.
As their wives, Zoë Yeoman and Kandyce Hughes are very good in portraying these very different women. Yeoman exhibits a demure sense of grace and refined elegance as Alice Russell, which is the exact opposite of the thick southern accent, outward sexuality, and slightly tacky nature of Hughes' Mabel Cantwell. These two actresses deliver clear, rich and succinct portrayals of two women who know what they need to do to ensure their husbands get the nomination.
C.D. Macaulay is excellent as the former president, Arthur Hockstader, a man of the people who is full of charm and wisdom and who has some of the play's best lines, including "there is nothing like a dirty low-down political fight to put the roses in your cheeks." Al Benneian and Jeffrey Middleton do fine work as the two candidates' slick and frantic campaign managers. As the sweet-talking power broker of the party's women's voting block Sue-Ellen Gamadge, Debra Lyman infuses the character with a lethal smile and threats that aren't exactly veiled.
With a well-versed cast and confident direction, Compass Players' production proves that Gore Vidal's The Best Man is still fresh and, unfortunately, still relevant today. Though the fact that some of the dialogue gets laughs now when I have to believe it didn't back in 1960 only shows how forward-thinking Vidal was in crafting this intriguing expose into the political wheeling and dealing that goes on behind closed doors and how unfortunate and disgraceful the state of politics has become.
Gore Vidal's The Best Man runs through January 28th, 2018, at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria AZ. Tickets can be ordered at theaterworks.org or by calling 623 815-7930.
Directed By Jeanna Michaels
Cast: (In Order Of Appearance)
*Member Of Actors Equity