Prior to seeing this show, I was familiar with playwright Gore Vidal by reputation only, and had not seen a production by the Williamsburg Players at all. I must say, they’ve both made one hell of a good first impression.
After doing a little bit of research, it seems reductive to refer to Mr. Vidal simply as a playwright. He was truly a renaissance man of letters. He was an essayist, novelist, screenwriter, and playwright, well-known for his interest in and insight into American politics. (His grandfather was a senator and he himself ran for office more than once.) The Best Man, which premiered in March 1960, is perhaps the best-known of his many plays, and is often interpreted as a condemnation of the divisive race for that year’s Democratic presidential nomination. (John Kennedy won that nomination, many assert by methods not quite above-board.) It remains relevant today – or perhaps has come around to being relevant again – by virtue of its portrayal of two politicians, one rigidly moralistic, the other not so much, as each contemplates the ethical compromises he is willing to make to win.
It’s also got some extremely crisp writing, with an edge that time has not dulled. Kind of like The West Wing, except without all that liberal smoke being blown in your face. This is a crackling, fast-paced political drama that everyone – party identification notwithstanding – can enjoy, and is therefore a very timely selection by the Williamsburg Players.
It’s also very much an actor’s play, and the acting in this production leaves very little to be desired. Christopher Becke is, compared to the rest of the cast, somewhat stiff in his portrayal, but is nonetheless endearing in the lead role of the moralizing and loftily intellectual William Russell, aided in no small degree by the chemistry between himself and Sharon Hollands, who plays his wife Alice Russell with an engaging alacrity. Sam Miller gives a terrifically subtle and intense performance as Joseph Cantwell, the more ethically flexible of the candidates for the party’s nomination. Alissa Gaithe, as Cantwell’s equally ambitious wife Mabel, exudes a contagious energy that peps up every scene she’s in (although her thickly affected dialect is at times a bit much). Special mention is also due stage veterans Tony Gabriele and Jenny Hart-Berndt, both of whom pack their brief appearances with enough character and subtext to keep a show afloat just on their own.
Gabriele in particular, a humor writer for the Daily Press, in the first act shows the comedic skill one could naturally assume him to have, but then later displays equal dramatic chops. Well done. Hart-Berndt has less stage time and fewer lines, but her swinging hips and bedroom eyes say every bit as much about her interrelations with the womanizing Russell as we need. Bonnie Carlson and Kevin Clauberg, as the candidates’ respective campaign managers, both give very good underplayed performances, remaining present and engaged at all times. Even during the long stretches of time when they’re onstage in the midst of the action as the plot unfolds around them, Carlson and Clauberg both project intent attention, on duty and ready to spring into action at any moment. Antoinette Brennan, as the fur and jewel be-decked party grande dame Sue-Ellen Gamadge, who speaks for “the women” and whips their votes, is a treasure. Her appearances are brief and few, which adds to her mystique and our delight whenever she reappears. The absolute standout performer in this production though is Brink Miller as former president Art Hockstader, who has a coveted endorsement to bestow on one of the candidates, and is not shy about telling either of them what’s what when it comes to how the sausage is made. Brink’s performance combines bluster, vulnerability, humor, and pathos in perfect proportion. Finally, I feel compelled to throw a mention to Daniel Abraham, in the role of Clyde Carlin. Although Mr. Abraham appears a bit vernal to be playing a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he puts me in mind of another callow fledgling actor who was once cast in a supporting role for which he was way too young… and that’s when the bug bit him. So have a care, young sir, lest my fate await you!
Director Neil Hollands has done a terrific job coordinating and managing this ensemble, both in terms of performance and utilitarian function. The scenic design characterizes a hotel suite, and all of the actors realize the imaginary wall that divides the rooms with a consistency that I happen to know is difficult to achieve. The only nit I can find to pick with the direction of the ensemble is that the extras’ peripheral business is at times a bit noisy and somewhat distracting. The cast also function as stage crew, executing the many scenic transitions with admirable swiftness and precision.
Although The Best Man isn’t the type of show that lends itself to ostentatious scenic installations or elaborate lighting displays, the technical elements of the production are all quite well-executed. The set, designed by Michael Westenberger, is unassuming, but takes full advantage of the James-York Playhouse’s expansive stage in order to show us the suites occupied by the two rival candidates (with some small but ingenious alterations differentiating between the two), as well as the hallway outside the rooms. The action is supported very well by Scott Hayes’s straightforward and unaffected lighting design. Kudos to Mr. Hayes for recognizing that sometimes simple is the best way to go.
John Trindle’s sound design serves the production well, although it is in places slightly over-wrought. (I think a knock at the door would have worked just as well as a buzzer cue.) All sound effects also play exclusively through the house speakers, which is a pet peeve of mine – telephone rings and the like are infinitely more convincing when issued from the general area of the supposed source of the sound.
Elizabeth Edmonds’s subtle and extremely well-conceived costume design (assisted by MJ Devaney and Lisa Neun) is one of the best I’ve seen on local stages. The costumes themselves walk a fine stylistic line between sixties period and modern style, which points up the relevance of this play to current events while also acknowledging when it was written. This helps make the pervasive homophobia on the part of all characters (even the ones we’re supposed to be rooting for) a little bit less of a stumbling block.
I must here again commend director Hollands and the entire production team for the unified aesthetic presentation of this production. Red and blue are utilized extensively in the costumes as well as Jason Kriner’s props (and even the playbill’s cover design), but in such a judicious manner that we are never led to any assumptions as to which party the candidates belong. That is, after all, beside the point.
As of this writing, what has in many ways been a historic (and historically divisive) election is not yet over. I myself have been taking alternating shots of Johnny Walker and Pepto Bismol while monitoring the news cycles for the past few months, and this show was a breath of fresh air. Board president Michael Westenberger, in his program note, exhorts us to take the opportunity to vote and be grateful we have the freedom to do so. Hear hear. The election results will be in by the time this review goes live, and I would like to add to Mr. Westenberger’s sentiment by exhorting you to see The Best Man, whether your candidate won or not. Allow yourself to spend two hours, courtesy of the Williamsburg Players, indulging yourself in the scenario that there is a best man, and that (maybe?) the best man wins. Fer chrissakes, we all deserve it.
Williamsburg Players’ The Best Man is one of two current productions dedicated to the memory of Kathleen Walden, one of the stalwarts of our local theatre community. The show runs thru 11/19. Thurs & Fri 8:00pm, Sat 2:00pm & 8:00pm. Call (757) 229-0431 or click here to reserve your seats. And as always, let us know what you think in the comments!