Saturday, August 30, 2008

"The Best Man": ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

Gore Vidal has a pedigree. He is the grandson of legendary blind Senator Thomas Prior Gore of Oklahoma, a distant cousin of Jimmy Carter and Al Gore and was even a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1960.

1960 was also the year that Vidal wrote 'The Best Man,' which has opened a five week run at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. It's a quasi-serious look at what goes on behind the scenes as two candidates for President, each in possession of a big pile of dirt against the other, vie for the best time to unleash their allegation. It is irrelevant that neither of the allegations is quite true. All a candidate has to do is smile, Secretary of State Russell reminds his campaign manager: "War is declared, and we just smile. We're like animals. All these predatory teeth!"

Charles Shaw Robinson's Secretary Russell is a dead ringer for former New York City Mayor John Lindsay, a handsome patrician from the privileged "Groton/Harvard" set. Think John Kerry, an educated man who finds it difficult to relate to the common man. His opponent, the slimy Senator Joseph Cantwell, played like a coiled rattler by Tim Kniffin, is a self-proclaimed "man of the people," armed with little intelligence but a surfeit of personal ambition. It's Kerry versus Bush all over again, except that Vidal wrote "The Best Man" almost 50 years ago.

Who will win? We don't know the outcome until the end and the winner is not who you think. Well, it's exactly who you think, because the play's largest flaw is that the outcome is telegraphed for the entire second act.

That's its only shortcoming, though. "The Best Man" has the satirical sensibility of a SF Mime Troupe show, only with far better writing and a superb cast. You'll laugh a lot, when you're not choking in realization of how little anything ever changes.

Charles Dean gives a fine reading as ex-President Hockstader, who gets most of the good lines (speaking to Cantwell: "It's not your being such a bastard that I object to, it's being such a stupid bastard."). And we can't forget Deb Fink whose cigarette-smoking, calculating Southern Belle is spot on perfect as Mabel Cantwell, wife of Senator Joe.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Best Man" Two and a Half Stars With a Bangle of Praise. It's a high Two-and-a-Half, though and the only reason it falls short of Three Stars is it feels a little dated. Not that Vidal doesn't see the world through wide-open eyes ("An immoral President?" laughs ex-President Hockstader. "Do they come in any other flavor?"). Maybe it's just getting a little too close to home.

The Bangle of Praise is for Elizabeth Benedict's perfect Mrs. Sue Ellen Gamadge, National Committee Woman for Russell. She makes us laugh and cringe at the same time with her hats, her gloves, her tightly corseted walk and all her pronouncements about "the women," as in "...the women don't trust intelligent men, Mr. Secretary."

"The Best Man"
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison St., Berkeley
Wed.-Sun. $42-$50

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