With midterm elections still months away and the 2016 presidential tilt lurking in the distance, it’s a perfect time to step back and consider the bloodsport that is the American political campaign. In its bracing production of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, Keegan Theatre has staged an all-too-real political clash between between two polar opposites that asks: What good is victory, if you have to betray all your ideals to achieve it?
This gripping tale of political wheeling and dealing pits scrupulous Secretary of State William Russell against firebrand Senator Joseph Cantwell at their party’s national convention, with nothing less than the presidential nomination on the line. As the candidates spar, their respective camps urge them to take increasingly drastic measures to win a spot in the general election.
Each candidate eventually procures potentially ruinous dirt on the other, and a showdown ensues over the choice to poison the well or maintain a clean contest. The resulting face-off is eerily reminiscent of notable real campaigns fraught with the issue of “going negative”; you could easily replace Russell/Cantwell with Obama/Hillary, McCain/Bush, or McAuliffe/Cuccinelli without missing a beat.
Keegan founder and artistic director Mark A. Rhea headlines the production as the cerebral, principled Russell. Supposedly modeled in equal parts after both Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, Russell exhibits canny political acumen and admirable moral resolve. Combined with Rhea’s square jaw and precisely measured speech, Russell teeters on the edge of movie star caricature. However, Vidal was careful to imbue his lead with key touches of realism, including a quirky superstitious streak and JFK-esque penchant for womanizing.
Cantwell balances out Russell’s principled campaigning with his ruthless ambition. Actor Colin Smith seems completely at home as a political shark swimming among minnows. Smith radiates charisma built upon unshakable determination to win; it’s hard to totally dislike him, even as he antagonizes his nobler opponent.
When carefully hidden secrets from Cantwell’s past surface, his mask of confidence begins to slip, revealing a suddenly mortal figure terrified of returning to his small-time beginnings.
THE BEST MAN
Closes February 22, 2014
1742 Church Street, NW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $35
Thursdays thru Sundays
Susan Marie Rhea provides some welcome lightness as the chatty socialite Mrs. Cantwell. She shares her husband’s desire for power but reveals cracks in her armor with constant nervous chatter in tense moments. She also does an embarrassing “Papa Bear/Mama Bear” routine with Joe that is just cheesy enough to be realistic. Rena Cherry Brown also leaves her mark with minimal stage time as Sue-Ellen Gamadge, a savvy power broker with the ability to swing the female vote to whichever candidate best meets her criteria.
Co-directors Christina Coakley and Timothy Lynch create an ever present tension as the two candidates race to conceal the skeletons in their closet. Russell’s ethical musing sometimes drags out into excessive moralizing, but usually the pace remains brisk and the acting sharp. Ultimately, The Best Man is a crackling cautionary tale about the struggle between virtue and ambition at the highest levels of power and in everyday life.
The Best Man by Gore Vidal . Directed by Christina Coakley and Timothy Lynch . Featuring Belen Pifel, Colin Smith, David Jourdan, Jim Howard, Kevin Adams, Mark A. Rhea, Mary Andrus, Mary Egan, Michael Innocenti, Nello DeBlasio, Peter Finnegan, Rena Cherry Brown, Sherri Herren, Stan Shulman, Susan Marie Rhea and Todd Baldwin. Set design: Michael Innocenti, Lighting Design, Katie McCreary. Costume Design: Erin Nugent, Sound Design: Dan Deiter . Properties and Set Dressing: Carol H. Baker . Dramaturg: Trudi Olivetti . Stage Manager: Megan Thrift assisted by Jen Grunfeld. Produced by Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Ben Demers.