SUMMIT, NJ – “The Best Man,” an astute political drama by Gore Vidal, hardly seems dated at all. Written in 1962, it may have been based on the Kennedy-Nixon battle for the White House.
But whatever the period, the contrast between the candidates, the corruption of the political system, the importance of spouses and getting the crucial votes all ring a surprisingly contemporary bell.
The play was recently revived on Broadway, with a rotating cast including Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones. It was a movie as well, with Henry Fonda as Russell and Cliff Robertson as Cantwell.
In the Summit Playhouse production, Michael King plays Secretary William Russell, a man of scrupulous morals, but with a troubled history of a nervous breakdown. Until recently, that was a stigma that could ruin a political career. King has just the right mix of ambition and self-reflection to come across as "the best man" for the job.
But the competing candidate, Senator Joseph Cantwell isn’t exactly perfect either. It seems there are rumors of homosexuality that could derail a promising future. Rick Holloway plays the young, ambitious Cantwell, who will use any means possible to be the presidential candidate. Holloway projects a sleek bravado as he tries to manipulate the situation. Kathleen Campbell Jackson plays his wife Mabel, with a hint of Southern charm, busily swirling martinis as she schemes as much as her husband to win the nomination. Jackson is full of vitality, bringing out the foibles in a character you love to hate. Debbie Bernstein is Alice Russell, the loyal wife who quietly stands by her man, a stark contrast to Mabel.
Hank Barre is superb as ex-President Art Hockstader, who wavers between the two candidates, obviously preferring Russell, but with doubts that he wants the prize badly enough to compromise his standards. His heated scenes with Russell are especially powerful, as he challenges the candidate to use the innuendos against his rival to secure the nomination.
Jean Kuras is a Republican Party organizer, Mrs. Sue Ellen Gamadge, all starch and political savvy. Arnold J. Buchiane is Senator Clyde Carlin, so caught up in the political shenanigans that he hardly sees right from wrong. David Hoffman appears as Sheldon Marcus, a bumbling resident who has some dirt to shed on Cantwell.
The entire cast, in fact, rises to the occasion, with a horde of clamoring reporters outside the door, ready to descend on either candidate at any moment.
Rhoda Roper’s set design is a fluid use of space, serving as the hotel suite for both the candidates during the national convention in Philadelphia. Simply closing the curtain between scenes emphasizes the change in location. Costumes by Petra Krugel subtly reflect the 1960s.
Director Frank Licato has created a stimulating, thought-provoking evening of the political scene, perfectly timed for the upcoming national election. Licato’s credits include numerous off-Broadway productions as well as a Perry Award for “Grapes of Wrath” at the Chatham Playhouse.
Performances run through Nov. 3. The Summit Playhouse is located at 10 New England Ave., Summit. For tickets, call 908-273-2192
or visit www.SummitPlayhouse.org.