The Best Man
Campaign pain: Candidate Joe Cantwell (Peter Blackwell) comforts his wife Mabel (Peggy Schott).
PHOTO COURTESY OF BRIAN MILLER
Howson Hall Theater at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, 4700 Grover, 744-1495
Through Oct. 21
Running time: 2 hr., 20 min.
I’ve been doing my best to avoid the news for the last few weeks; if I’m exhausted by the mass media circus, I can hardly imagine how Mitt and Barry are feeling. Nonetheless, it was a pleasure to return to the Unitarian Universalist Church to see the Paradox Players’ contribution to the cacophony: a well-executed production of Gore Vidal’s 1960 election drama The Best Man.
It’s billed as fare that’ll illuminate just how much – and how little – has changed on our national political stage since mid-century, a flashback to a time when party conventions were more suspenseful than our four-day cheer camps that coronate a predetermined nominee. Indeed, Vidal’s tale of the backhanded battle between fictional candidates Russell and Cantwell for their party’s blessing resonates with the kind of intra-party bickering we’re used to. (I’m looking at you, Republicans. And Democrats. All of you, really.) Cries of “class warfare” also sound familiar, leveled by aggressive self-made bootstrap-puller Cantwell (the excellent Peter Blackwell) against “wimpy” Harvard intellectual Russell, played with erudite composure by David Morgan Shaw.
Then, as Bill “Arithmetic” Clinton proved last month, there’s still great value to be had in the endorsement of a popular former president, an honor the two candidates spend the majority of the play attempting to secure. But President Hockstader (the feisty Don Owen) enjoys seeing the boys squirm as he traipses between their suites at the hotel where the convention’s being held. He’ll throw his hat in the ring only for the best man – the one who’s got the strength of character to get the job done.
The play dates itself in significant ways, though. Most obviously, it looks like something out of a black-and-white television special, with a beautiful set that’s the spitting image of a Sixties hotel room – ugly upholstery, full bar, and all. The vintage costumes add to the illusion, as do the candidates’ slogans: “Hustle with Russell!” and “Can-Do with Cantwell!” It’s difficult to imagine anyone getting elected today with one of those clunkers.
By the end of the evening, The Best Man feels very old indeed with its pre-civil rights, pre-feminist movement concerns. We are hardly shocked, for example, as the chairperson of the Women’s Division of the Party (Susan Roberts) gets up in arms about Mrs. Russell’s (Cynthia Schiebel) past involvement in a pro-birth control group. And though Russell’s ultimate downfall – a history of mental instability and promiscuity, never mind the atheism – would cause scandal today, we don’t find it nearly as shocking as Vidal’s script does.
With a spirited cast, the all-volunteer Paradox Players carry The Best Man high above their heads, celebrating its dated yet timely and timeless sentiments. In my book, they’ve certainly won.