Rewind To Now
By Tom Wachunas
I imagine that to Broadway theater goers in 1960, or film viewers in 1964, Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” must have seemed, despite its funny moments amid unguarded cynicism, a searing and candid if not brave commentary on the toxicity of American politics. And now, after seeing it presented by Seat of the Pants Productions, directed by Craig Joseph at the Black Box Theater in GlenOak High School - and coming as it does on the heels of our national political conventions - I also wonder if those first audiences could have possibly appreciated the uncanny prescience of Vidal’s vision when compared to today’s terribly fractious political practices.
Set at a contested nominating convention (of an unnamed party) in, interestingly enough, Philadelphia, the party’s nomination hangs in the balance as two embattled candidates wait to see which one the lame-duck president will endorse. All of the play’s action transpires in the candidates’ respective hotel suites. Some of the 1960s hot-button issues, back-room deal-brokering, and “scandalous” behaviors addressed in this story might seem downright ho-hum by today’s standards, for better or worse. Yet its topicality nonetheless takes on a palpable new authenticity here. All eleven members of director Joseph’s excellent cast are remarkably adept at articulating the play’s uneasy balance between biting sarcasm and credible human drama.
There’s a distinct air of world-weariness to Greg Emanuelson’s portrayal of candidate William Russell, particularly when he navigates a crisis of conscience late in the proceedings. He’s a highly educated man of patrician stock who refuses to pander to public opinion. His penchant for quoting philosophers and writers on government, morality, and ethics to anyone within earshot is one that his very meticulous campaign manager, Dick Jensen, regards as a serious liability. In that role, Matthew Heppe is an excitable yet endearing bundle of nerves as he attempts to downplay Russell’s overly-brainy sermonizing.
Other liabilities threaten to derail Russell’s bid for the nomination, including his reputation as a philanderer and its toll on his marriage. Stephanie Cargill has crafted a remarkably poignant rendering of dignity amid woundedness, tempered with a measure of emotional detachment both chilling and sad in her role of Mrs. Russell. It’s easy enough to appreciate her reservations about getting on board with feisty and sardonic party operative Mrs. Gamadge, played by Margo Parker, who insists with militant urgency that Mrs. Russell be always visible at her husband’s side to inspire women voters.
Conversely, Heidi Swinford exudes a practically lascivious glee in her role of Mabel Cantwell, the beautiful (and sly, despite her somewhat air-headed demeanor) wife of Russell’s opponent, Senator Joe Cantwell. She’s an effective poser, and all too eager to nurture the media feeding-frenzy with her vacuous glad-handing. And ‘eager’ doesn’t begin to adequately describe her husband. As the manipulative and self-serving Senator Cantwell, Scott Miesse turns in an often riveting study of intense cupidity surpassed only by his character’s frightening aptitude for flinging ill-gotten dirt on his opponent. He’s utterly unashamed to declare that his ends justify his means.
Speaking of ends, Bob McCoy brings to his role of the ailing President Art Hockstader - outgoing in more ways than one – a genuine sense of existential angst. In his private talks with both candidates, he makes a big point of asking if they believe in God, perhaps looking to salve the consequences of his own unbelief and see if there might be an alternative route to immortality. “The world’s changed since I was politickin’,” he muses at one point, adding, “In those days you had to pour God over everything, like ketchup.”
That line elicited a particularly hearty (and nervous?) laugh from the audience on opening night (July 29), and has lingered with me ever since. I’ve always found that the art of theatre is at its best when it doesn’t remain on the stage after the house goes dark – that it leaves us with something to chew on and digest beyond the more ephemeral elements of mere “entertainment”. A take-away of lasting value. Seeing this play’s indictment of so much wrong in American politics then seems to inexorably point head and heart to the failures and absurdities of our now.
So call it sermonizing if you will. Indulge me, or get over it. But I wonder if for too long we’ve made God into an innocuous condiment. Like ketchup. Maybe he should be the main course. Now that’s a take-away.
“The Best Man” at the Black Box Theater in GlenOak High School, 1801 Schneider St. SE, Plain Township (Canton, Ohio) / Shows on Friday August 5 and Saturday August 6 at 8 p.m., Sunday August 7 at 2 p.m. / Tickets $15 at www.seatofthepants.eventbrite.com
PHOTOS, from top, left to right (courtesy Craig Joseph, Seat Of The Pants Productions): #1: Matthew Heppe, Greg Emanuelson; #2: Margo Parker, Heidi Swinford; #3. Bob McCoy, Stephanie Cargill; #4. Scott Miesse, Heidi Swinford