The Best Man
n 1960, twenty years before he won the race to the White House, movie actor Ronald Reagan auditioned for the part of a presidential candidate in Gore Vidal's drama about the race for the presidency "The Best Man." Ironically, Reagan didn't get the part because Gore Vidal did not think he could play a credible president! "The Best Man" opened on Broadway that year and was nominated for Best Play. It became a major film starring Henry Fonda in 1964 and was revived on Broadway in 2000 and again last year with a cast that included James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury.
Now just about two weeks before the 2012 presidential election, the Summit Playhouse has premiered their excellent version of Vidal's sophisticated tale "The Best Man." 'Excellent' may be an inadequate word....the production directed by one of our most respected directors, Frank Licato, is simply superior theater. Even though the play is more than 50 years old and references the world of 1960- Eisenhower, Nixon and McCarthy- this witty, highly entertaining play is very relevant today as demonstrated by the fight for power between the two presidential hopefuls, the socially ethical, more liberal Harvard educated, Secretary of State William Russell (Michael King) and the highly ambitious, self-avowed Christian, but unscrupulous handsome young senator from the south, Joseph Cantwell (Rick Holloway).
View slideshow: Summit Playhouse's "The Best Man'
Photo credit: SP
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The setting is confined to two hotel suites during the 1960 presidential convention in Philadelphia where Russell and Cantwell are the front runners for the Democratic party's Presidential nomination. Unlike today's conventions which merely crown a candidate decided weeks earlier, the candidates have arrived at the convention minus the delegate votes needed to secure the nomination. To close the gap and win the nomination, both candidates are seeking the ex-President's endorsement.
The play is filled with Vidal's elegant, sharp, witty and often amusing dialogue. As an example here is Russell talking to Cantwell: "You said you were religious. Well, I'm not. But I believe profoundly in this life and what we do to one another and how this monstrous "I"; the self, must become "we" and draw the line at murder in the games we play with one another, and try to be good even when there is no one to force us to be good." Vidal's best line, also spoken by Russell, is "Since when has the truth been a deterrent at this convention?"
Now to deliver these sharp witty lines of dialogue, director Licato has a cast that blurs the line between professional paid Equity performers and community theater volunteers. This cast is outstanding. Michael King (Secretary of State Russell) is one of the finest actors on any stage. We were greatly impressed by King in the Chatham Playhouse's recent production of Glenngarry Glen Ross. He delivers an equally remarkable performance in "The Best Man." Hank Barre is superb as the ex-President Art Hockstader. Rick Holloway nicely nails the part of the ambitious, the 'end justifies the means', Senator Cantwell.
Some of the finest, most touching and humorous moments are provided by the two candidates' wives. Debbie Bernstein is perfect as Russell's attractive wife locked in a cold marriage aching for her husband's affection, as is Kathleen Campbell Jackson as the pretty, high style Mabel Cantwell determined to help her husband win, no matter what....and very funny doing it.
The balance of the excellent cast: Jean Kuras as Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, Chairman of the Party's Women's Division; David Hoffman as Sheldon Marcus; Frank Blaeuer as Dick Jensen campaign manager for Secretary Russel; Arnold Buchiane as Senator Clyde Carlin; Dennis Conaway as Dr. Artinian; FJ DeRobertis as Don Blades; Jessica Phelan as Catherine assistant to Dick Jensen. The reporters and delegates: Diana Chaves, Jeff Foote, Steve Gabe, Ivette Hawthorne, and Rich Kessler.
"The Best Man" is the 304th production of the Summit Playhouse now in its 95th sesaon and is directed by Frank Licato with Sally Ponzio and Pamela Wilczynski producers. Production staff: Rhoda Roper set design; Petra Krugel costumes; Risha Walden set decoration; J. Guerdon Mayfield set construction and Pamela Wilczynski stage manager.
"The Best Man" is running at the Summit Playhouse, 10 New England Avenue, Summit, New Jersey, October 20, 25, 26, 27, 28 and November 2, 3. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students (18 and under). For tickets: visit www.summitplayhouse.org/tickets, or call
Reviewed by Rick Busciglio October 19, 2012
By Gore Vidal
Directed by Frank Licato
"The Best Man makes you wish that Vidal were writing the dialogue for the presidential debates." -NY Times. "A sophisticated, elegant and damnably entertaining play!" -The New Yorker. "Well-crafted and witty with surprises, reversals, pungent character sketches, satire, worldly wisdom and juicy roles for all concerned." -NY Magazine. "THE BEST MAN is a winner! Extraordinarily fresh, witty, sharp and relevant." -NY Daily News.
October 19, 20, 25, 26, 27, 28*; November 2, 3
* 2 pm matinee
Summit Playhouse (View)
10 New England Ave
Summit, NJ 07901
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