BWW Reviews: THE BEST MAN at Keegan Theatre Captivates
Gore Vidal's "The Best Man", currently running at Keegan Theatre in DuPont Circle, asks its characters and the audience a central, important question: what makes a politician a good candidate, and what makes that person a good politician? Is it ideals and the desire to stick with them, or the insatiable drive to get ahead? And, should they succeed, is it all worth it?
Vidal's Tony-nominated political commentary, which has seen a number of revivals in the past several years, covers historical events and issues that, without his verbal fire and the right performances, could easily be borderline droll. This production is assuredly not so.
The basic structure is this: two candidates are vying for their party's nomination at a 1960 convention, confident that it will carry them to the White House. The first, Secretary of State William Russell (Mark A. Rhea) revels in quirky but steadfast idealism and occasional bad jokes. The second, Senator Joseph Cantwell (Colin Smith), drives forward at all cost, using whatever tricks and testimony he can to achieve a final goal, usually to a fault.
The one thing that can move them ahead of the other is a nomination from former President Arthur Hockstader (Kevin Adams),whose love of the political game finds things to hate in both men's campaigns. Or, if they play their cards right, dirt on the other candidate, released at just the right time.
Co-directors Christina A. Coakley and Timothy H. Lynch, along with scenic designer Michael Innoncenti, have given the audience a calmly ambient show, centered around the performances. The audience is meant to be in the center of it at times. Reporters and campaign staff charge down the side aisles, and speech deliveries are sent out into the house.
The set, a typical beige hotel suite with a fully stocked drink cart and American flags, requires no shifting of pieces based on candidates. Instead, each candidate's room is designated by his campaign poster being lit at the top of the stage, draped behind a soapbox balcony set up for occasional speeches and announcements. It's not a necessary accommodation to tell the story, but it works.
Kevin Adams, as President Hockstader, steals the show. He commands the stage as well as his character believes that he commands the correct opinion. His lines evoked huge laughs, and his portrayal only got better as the show progressed. Colin Smith portrays Joseph Cantwell superbly as a fantastically reckless competitor, who, as an audience member, you are afraid of but strangely okay with liking. The same can be said for Susan Marie Rhea's performance as his wife, Mabel. She is sassy and hilarious, and brings a new energy to the show from the first moment she yells at the television.
Perhaps it came from direction or personal acting choices, but the performances of Mark A. Rhea and Sheri Herren, as Alice, the Secretary's estranged wife, seemed somewhat stiff. Rhea was very difficult to hear at several times, which affected his parts of the fast-paced dialogue. It's nothing a little added volume can't fix, but his lack of body language made the character as a whole fail to be completely translated to the audience. Herren lacked expression as well, but warmed up during the second act, when Alice's verbal sparring with Mabel gave her more room to play.
The remaining cast members all play their parts with aplomb. Michael Innoncenti delivers as Sheldon Marcus, a witness to Cantwell's potential political doom, and Rena Cherry Brown is delightful as national committee chairwoman Sue-Ellen Gamadge.
With the "The Best Man", Keegan Theatre has taken on a tough and yet timely subject matter, and pulled it off well. Go for the surprising script, the performances, and the ability to laugh at what normally makes you shudder every day on the news. It is definitely a few hours well spent.
"The Best Man" runs until February 22nd. For more information, visit the production page.
Photo credits: C. Stanley Photography