Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Best Man, More Stories by Tobias Wolff
and The Foreigner

An Engaging Production of The Best Man

Charles Shaw Robinson and Cast
Apropos to this political season, Aurora Theatre is presenting Gore Vidal's The Best Man.  Tom Ross helms this intriguing drama with a sterling cast of actors from the Bay Area. This is the third time I have seen the provocative play.

The Best Man takes place in a Philadelphia hotel room in 1960 during a presidential convention. There is political infighting on a national level between two antagonists.  The two front runners, William Russell (Charles Shaw Robinson) and Senator Joseph Cantwell (Tim Kniffin), are preparing to do battle for key delegates to the convention. It is a neck and neck situation.

William Russell is the good guy, patterned after chivalrous Adlai Stevenson, while Joseph Cantwell is the bad guy who will stop at nothing to get the nomination (patterned after Richard Nixon).  Cantwell has information that William Russell had a nervous breakdown a few years back and he is determined to bring this out to the convention delegates. Russell's friends have found out that Cantwell might have had a homosexual affair while serving in the Army in Alaska during the war. Both sides are ready to fight fire with fire.  In the middle is ex-president Arthur Hockstader (Charles Dean), who has yet to throw his support to either candidate.

The Best Man is full of droll remarks and still relevant interpretations of America's political culture. When I first saw the play at the Morosco Theatre during the summer of 1960 the dialogue was sharp and intriguing. Today the dialogue seems stiff. It does not seem like natural speech, even with painstakingly phrased little zingers.

Tom Ross has assembled a great cast and the timing is excellent in the confrontations between the characters. Charles Shaw Robinson is very good giving long sermons. Tim Kniffin gives a polished performance in his portrayal of the brazen McCarthy-type individual.  Charles Dean (who will be appearing in White Christmas on Broadway this year) gives a compelling performance as the ex-president.

Deb Fink's southern accented portrayal of Mabel Cantwell is colorful as she flounces around the stage, almost stealing the show. Her counterpart is Emilie Talbot as Alice Russell, a cool and calm, intelligent woman. Jackson Davis plays several roles, but he shines as the cringing Sheldon Marcus, who brings news of Cantwell's controversial past. Michael Patrick Gaffney is first rate as Russell's aid Dick Jensen while Michael Cassidy is fine as Cantwell's aid Don Blades.

Richard Olmsted has devised a detailed hotel suite set with the logos of the candidates running at the top of the stage. The logo changes based on which candidate is in the room.

The Best Man plays through September 28th at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets, call 510-843-4822 or visit  Their next production will be George Bernard Shaw's The Devil's Disciple opening on October 31st.

Photo: David Allen

A Masterful Production of More Stories by Tobias Wolff

Michelle Pava Mills and
Stephanie Hunt

Word for Word Company is celebrating their 15th season by presenting More Stories by Tobias Wolff at the Magic Theatre through October 5th.  Tobias Wolff is one of America's finest storytellers. Word for Word is one of the few companies in this country whose casts actually act and tell the story.  Their mission is to tell great stories with elegant theatricality, staging performances of classic and contemporary fiction. Last year they presented three stories by this famous teller of tales with great success.

Five very gifted performers are acting and telling three of Tobias Wolff's stories. The works selected are from "Our Story Begins" (spring 2008).  They include the hilarious short piece "Sanity"; the sultry, guilt-ridden "Down to the Bone"; and the buoyant and haunting "Firelight."

Stephanie Hunt and Michelle Pava Mills are wonderful as Claire and her stepchild April visiting the father in a sanatorium in "Sanity."  Ms. Mills is terrific playing a very nervous teenager while Ms. Hunt, who is very prim and proper, plays it cool and calm.  She looks and sounds like Carol Burnett in a dramatic role. "Sanity" also features Paul Finocchiaro, who looks like Jack Nicholson, trying to sell a convertible to the two ladies. He gives an enthusiastic performance in the role.

"Down to the Bone" follows, with Finocchiaro playing the son of a dying mother. There is a hilarious scene with Jeri Lynn Cohen as Elfie, the head of a funeral home, who has sex with the son.

"Firefly" is a lovely and lingering story about a man, played brilliantly by Anthony Nemirovsky, who talks about his childhood life and the closeness he had with his mother, played beautifully by Jeri Lynn Cohen. Michelle Pava Mills is great as a vivacious teenager just named sister.

More Stories by Tobias Wolff plays through October 5th at the Magic Theatre, Southside, Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco.  For tickets call 415-441-8822 or visit Word for Word at

Photo: Clayton Lord

A Laugh-Filled Production of Larry Shue's The Foreigner

Every once in a while a company presents Larry Shue's audience-friendly The Foreigner. San Jose Repertory Theatre is currently presenting this sweet play with a solid cast of Bay Area favorites. The Foreigner opened Off-Broadway at Astor Place in 1984 with Anthony Heald (now a resident actor at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) in the lead. 

Charlie Baker (Louis Lotorto) is an excruciatingly shy Englishman who has a neurotic terror of talking to strangers. He is depressed because his wife is very ill and has had many affairs because she found Charlie intensely boring. He finds himself stuck for a weekend in a Georgia fishing lodge. He does not want to speak to anyone at the lodge because of his neuroses.

Charlie's best friend, Staff Sergeant "Foggy" (Steve Irish), has a plan in which Charlie won't have to talk to anyone. The good sergeant tells his friend Betty (Phoebe Elinor Moyer), the charmingly addled lodge owner, along with others that Charlie is a foreigner who does not speak English.  The plan works for a short time and then Charlie rapidly gets sucked into all kind of tomfoolery. He overhears a plan by the Reverend David Lee (Craig Marker), a member of the Ku Klux Klan who plans to cheat Betty out of the ownership of lodge so he can make it the headquarters of the local Klan.  

The Foreigner borders on being a farce but it doesn't play to the excessive edges of comedy, thanks to director Andrew Barnicle. It is a two-act play that runs two hours and twenty minutes.

Andrew Barnicle has assembled an excellent cast that does justice to the playwright's words. Louis Lotorto (Los Angeles An Enemy of the People) gives an imaginative performance.  His sincerity shines during moments when David's fiancée Catherine, played delightfully by Anna Bullard (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), confides in him that she is about to have a baby with her sterilized fiancé, the Reverend David. Louis Lotorto, who speaks in fake Middle European gobbledygook speech, is first rate when he gradually turns from being a mouse into a wacky hero.

Phoebe Elinor Moyer (Major Barbara at San Jose Rep) gives a winning performance as Betty. She uses a Southern drawl and bounces about the stage with glee throughout the production. Craig Marker (Iphigenia at Aulis) is the ruthless, scheming Reverend David, an interesting antagonist since, in his presentation at the beginning of the play, he is very likeable. James Asher (The Laramie Project in New York) as the redneck Owen Musser is dangerously realistic. Steve Irish (Nixon's Nixon) with a good cockney accent gives an engaging performance as Staff Sergeant "Foggy." Aaron Wilton (New York Fringe Festival Happy Mundanes) as Ellard matches Barnicle with a comic show of dumbness. However, as the play progresses, the audience sees that he is very clever and eventually becomes a hero.

Kent Dorsey has designed a very detailed woodsy lodge set.  B. Modern's costumes, Paulie Jenkins' lighting and Steve Schoenbeck's sound are great assets to this comedy.

The Foreigner plays through September 28th at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. For tickets please call 408-367-7255 or visit Their next production is Splitting Infinity opening on October 11 and running through November 9.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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