The Madison Theatre Guild’s production of the political drama The Best Man arrives just in time for the midterm elections. Onstage at the Bartell Theater through November 17, Gore Vidal’s talky script pits two presidential candidates against one another at the 1960 national convention, each struggling to win their party’s nomination. But the overly-long production is neither compelling as a period piece nor uplifting as a reminder of the democratic values that the country was founded on. And it cannot begin to compete with the over-the-top high-jinks of the nightly news. What’s left is a low stakes look at backroom political deals that are as unremarkable as they are expected. Although The Best Man is bolstered by a uniformly strong cast, there is no man in this race that would get my vote.
Though it’s probably coincidence, one of the candidates (William Russell played by a measured John Jajewski) will remind “West Wing” fans of Jed Bartlett. He’s an East Coast intellectual who loves to quote philosophers and ponder issues deeply, before responding in a calm and just manner. The other candidate (Joe Cantwell, played by the slick-talking R. Peter Hunt) will remind “House of Cards” viewers of Frank Underwood. With a folksy Southern drawl and a cutthroat, win-at-all-costs ambition, he has exchanged his scruples for a shot at power.
The candidates are flanked by their campaign managers — the young thug Don Blades (an exasperated Nick Kaprelian) on the Cantwell team and the level-headed, seasoned political operative Dick Jensen (the cool Carl Cawthorne) on the Russell squad. Their dutiful, but polar opposite wives try to prop up their husbands’ popularity by attending teas and showing off their domestic tranquility for the press. Mrs. Russell (Rebecca Raether) is a cold woman scorned, who barely tolerates the media circus. Mrs. Cantwell (Liz Angle) is a former cheerleader type who charms her way into the center of attention with her wholesome American values and then bathes in the spotlight.
With these incredibly distinct lines drawn, it’s hard to understand what’s taking former president Arthur Hockstader (good old boy, Lee Waldhart) so long to decide which man he’ll endorse. But then, three-quarters of the way through the play the issue is moot and everyone is still talking.
At a time when discord, dirty tricks, and outright lies are dominating the discourse of our national politics, it’s positively quaint to see two mid-20th century white guys wrestle with how to serve the American people best, and navigate the moral quandaries of using dirt to smear the reputation of one’s opponent — even when the “dirt” is relatively innocuous, as it is here.
Part of the reason the piece doesn’t work is that, although the play is undeniably set in 1960 — the script references the time period over and over — the optics of the production don’t do enough to reinforce that. Sure, there’s a rotary phone on the set and several of the women wear impressive bouffant hairstyles, but the scenic design and costumes look generic. That makes it harder for the audience to buy in to the specific rules and norms of the era.
Another problem with the set is that it takes too long to transform from one candidate’s hotel room to the other’s. The changeover, cleverly performed by stagehands in bellhop uniforms, is painstaking and slows the action of the play to a crawl. This is especially problematic in the second act, when scenes are supposed to occur in rapid succession.
In the coming weeks it will be easy to immerse ourselves in political machinations with real urgency and stakes. If you’re looking for election themed escapism, I suggest finding a candidate you admire on Netflix.