Bill Russell (Jim Salners) wants the endorsement of the President (David Parker).
Bill Russell (Jim Salners) wants the endorsement of the President (David Parker).
Doug Killgore

The Best Man

Any American who votes knows the upcoming year promises to be a wild and woolly political ride. The folks at Main Street Theater have already buckled in. Their season opener, The Best Man by Gore Vidal, is a political drama filled with the sort of emotional wreckage that hard campaigning creates. Never mind that the show first opened on Broadway in 1960 — the prescient script feels like it was written yesterday. Smart and cynical, the story pits an intellectual good guy against a Machiavellian Everyman and manages to bang up against many of the issues next year's voters are already struggling with.

It's the primary convention for an unnamed party, and the stakes are high. Two major candidates have a chance at the nomination. Bill Russell (Jim Salners) is an ex-Ivy Leaguer who quotes Shakespeare, peppers his speech with irony and uses lots of very big words, much to the consternation of his campaign manager Dick Jensen (Rutherford Cravens). But Russell has good intentions and believes in being honest with the people and with reporters; he even talks about unpopular ideas such as Red China. And while it's true that he's got a weakness for the ladies and that his marriage to his reserved, dutiful wife is all for show, Russell thinks his private life is nobody else's business.

Also in the political ring is Senator Joseph Cantwell (Justin Doran), a dirty, rotten bastard of the first order. He's got the kind of raging ambition that can take a guy from having to worry about how he's going to pay for his kid's braces to becoming a U.S. Senator. And now that he's got the chance to become president, he'll do anything for the nomination — including spreading lies about his opponent. In fact, Cantwell made a name for himself with a McCarthyesque witch-hunt for small-time "Sicilian bandits" on the Lower East Side of New York City. When his people uncover a medical document recounting ex-Secretary of State Russell discussing a breakdown he had years ago, Cantwell's ready to sling some mud.


The Best Man

Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose, 713-524-6706.

Through September 16. $20-$35.

Putting perspective on the fight is the current president, Arthur Hockstader (David Parker), an old "hick," as he calls himself, who's as wise as he is cynical. He questions Russell's inability to act quickly and thinks he might be too thoughtful to be a strong leader. On the other hand, Cantwell is so ambitious, he can't see past his own image to listen to others and therefore can't read the people, which is as important as being decisive, according to Hockstader. In the end, the president makes clear that he loves nothing more than to get as down and dirty as the next guy when it comes to politics, and he's ready to get in up to his elbows once he decides who will make the better leader.

The strength of Vidal's play lies in the ambiguities it opens up. The old president argues that great leaders need lots of qualities, but goodness isn't necessarily one of them. And Vidal makes a strong case for that argument in the story that unfolds.

The strength of Main Street's production is in the charismatic cast director Mark Adams has put together. Salners is appropriately stiff and starchy as good guy Russell. But Doran's Cantwell is the real showstopper of the two — sublimely rotten. Young, tall, handsome and practically vibrating with energy as he paces the stage, Doran has created a soulless, grinning reptile of a man who's got snake oil pulsing through his veins.

And as President Hockstader, Parker lights up the stage with the kind of charismatic glow we expect from our leaders. Full of good-natured jokes and self-­deprecating good will, Parker's Hockstader is also a supremely sensible man who's fully capable of obliterating an opponent if ­necessary.

The smaller roles are just as appealing. As Mabel Cantwell, the nominee's wife, Sara Gaston makes a perfect trailer-trash "Mama-bear" who'll stop at nothing to see her man win. And Rutherford Cravens is a sweaty bull of a campaign manager; his Jensen is innately good, even if he does love a nasty fight.

As strong as the cast is, the most remarkable aspect of this production is Vidal's biting insight into American politics — that, and the fact that after nearly 50 years, it appears that very little has changed.


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