The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Mudslinging, personal attacks and the pursuit of power at all costs is a part of politics. We see it through political ads today, and Gore Vidal saw it when he wrote The Best Man, which premiered on Broadway in 1960. Vidal’s timeless play---a revival is currently playing on Broadway with an all-star cast---has just opened locally at the Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts (PPTOPA).
The Best Man is set in Philadelphia during the 1960 convention of an unnamed party. Two politicians, former Secretary of State William Russell (Jeffrey Bruce) and Senator Joseph Cantwell (Sean Patrick Kennedy) are vying for the presidential nomination. With his intelligence, experience and level-headedness, Russell seems like the best man for the job. His opponent, Joseph Cantwell, is young, handsome, and doesn’t appear to stand for much other than sitting in the oval office. When Cantwell threatens to release personal information that will end Russell’s presidential bid, Russell must decide how far he will go to prevent Cantwell from occupying the most powerful post in the world.
The marvelous, yet sad, part of The Best Man is how timely the plot still is. Update the clothing and throw in some cell phones and laptops, and the play would be completely contemporary. That means it’s a great piece of timeless writing, but the down side of that, of course, is how little society has evolved regarding how we select our leaders.
The biggest societal change from 1960 to today that one can see through the world of The Best Man is the role women play in politics. In The Best Man, two of the four female characters are dutiful political wives, the third is a dowager advising the candidates on what women voters want, and the fourth brings coffee and messages. Today, of course, the women could be the politicians, or at least hold high positions on the candidates’ staff.
The PPTOPA production, under the direction of Peter Librach, admirably brings Vidal’s play to life. It’s a timely choice, given that this is an election year, and the cast works hard to mine the humor in Vidal’s words.
Jeffrey Bruce delivers the stand-out performance as William Russell. His demeanor is natural and inviting, and Bruce’s expressions perfectly convey the character’s inner conflict between his desire to win and his need to do the right thing. It’s a shame that Bruce’s strong, rich voice is so overly amplified that he sounds like he’s been auto-tuned. The sound design is uneven throughout, which sometimes gets in the way of understanding the dialogue. Sean Patrick Kennedy looks every inch the dashing young candidate, and Jeff Canary, who looks like a cross between Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, is completely believable as a political advisor. Alvin Entin is the embodiment of a back-slapping, southern good old boy politico.
The Best Man is the perfect play to get one ready for the upcoming presidential election, and give a wry perspective on how far we have---and haven’t---come as a society, and as a country.
The Best Man runs through August 12 at the Susan B. Katz Theatre of the Performing Arts at the River of Grass ArtsPark, 17195 Sheridan St., Pembroke Pines. For tickets and more information, call 954-437-4884, 877-477-8672, or visit pptopa.com.