Political parallels found in Players' "The Best Man"

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

A former secretary of state and a candid senator, one liberal and the other populist, vie for a spot in the White House.

Sound familiar?

Actually, this is the premise of "The Best Man," a play by Gore Vidal written in 1960. It also happens to be the play opening this weekend at James-York Playhouse, mere days before the presidential election.

This wasn't by chance.

"It made a lot of sense to look for a political show, and this immediately came to mind," director Neil Hollands said.

Hollands first saw the 2012 revival of "The Best Man" on Broadway, originally attracted by an all-star cast that included James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury. He left the theater captivated by the story.

"There's kind of a moral core to this show that gives you a vision of how things could turn out if a few people chose to behave just a little bit differently," he said. "If they put their moral code over their political career at some point, possibly how much better it could make things."

Not to mention it's a funny show, strengthened by the interplay among 13 cast members, some of them new to the Players.

Set in Philadelphia, the play centers on the contested political convention of an unspecified party. William Russell is a witty, almost lofty, liberal candidate who believes himself to be ethical. Senator Joe Cantwell, the more conservative of the two, works hard and fights dirty.

Cantwell reveals plans to spread the dirt he has on Russell. Turns out, Russell discovers something from Cantwell's past, and he wrestles with the decision to use it.

"It gets into the psychology of mudslinging," said Sam Miller, cast as Cantwell.

Miller described his own character's mudslinging as "a means to an end," and Russell's an act of self-defense.

"We get this question of: what should remain personal and what should become public, and should that really matter about which candidate we end up choosing?" Hollands said. "It's very insightful in how it looks at that."

The play largely occurs behind closed hotel doors as you watch the interactions between the candidates, their wives, campaign managers and former president Art Hockstader, who plans to endorse one of the two.

Other plot points emerge. Alice Russell and her husband are estranged due to his infidelity, but she stands at his side during the convention. And though a Southern belle on the outside, Mabel Cantwell is as sly a politician as Joe.

"When Gore Vidal wrote this play, in 1960 or so, some of the issues then are entirely recognizable today," said Chris Becke, who plays Russell.

Hollands said many have speculated about the characters' parallels to politicians of the time, such as Kennedy or Nixon, and he finds the current parallels fascinating.

"No matter how it goes, we will probably survive this. We've survived it before," he said. "American history goes on. There are bigger currents that are still in play, and character still matters at the end of the day."

This isn't a play to sway political opinion. As theater does, it offers an escape.

"I do think there's a happy ending in an unexpected way, and that's all I'll say about it," Hollands said. "It's a way that I think might make (audiences) feel a little bit better about how they've started to feel about American politics."

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

Want to go?

When: 8 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m., Saturdays; Nov. 3-19

Where: James-York Playhouse, 200 Hubbard Lane

Tickets: $20/adults, $12/students and children, available at 757-229-0431 or williamsburgplayers.org.

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