The Best Man (4 stars)

The Best Man, by Gore Vidal, Directed by John Robison, Assistant Director Erin Fox, Set and Lighting Design Greg Westfall, a production of the Olathe Civic Theatre Association, runs through November 23.

Great plays examine the human character, and that’s the pervasive topic of The Best Man because it’s set at a political convention, where who votes for whom is all about character. Who will take the nomination to be their party’s candidate for President of the United States? Which candidate will the current president support? Set in two rooms of a hotel, it’s all about two men, Bill Russell (Don Leonard) and Joseph Cantwell (Doug Ford). Each have flaws and assets that are reflected in their wives and campaign managers. The press hounds them for information and the pressure to make back room deals couldn’t be more intense. Along the way, religion, loyalty, strength, and principle are the battlegrounds. Only one of these men can win the day, but “Who deserves to win?” and “Who will win?” are different questions.

If I’ve learned anything reviewing theatre for a decade, including a surprisingly disappointing trip to see 7 shows on Broadway in New York, it’s that small theaters can be as good as big theatres. Small theatres have less profit incentive; the staff are there for the art. Suspension of disbelief fills in for any lack of scenery. The heart of a show matters most, and The Best Man is the greatest example that I’ve seen of this so far in Kansas City. The Olathe Civic Theatre is a gem of community theatre that is worth your attention. Their venue, a renovated church that seats perhaps 200, is truly a home for their community. Spending some time with the volunteers and staff, we saw the chemistry and friendship between them.

Director John Robison made an excellent choice of play. Written in the 1960s by Gore Vidal, whom I know vaguely as “that guy who’s not Truman Capote, Tim Gunn, or Winston Churchill who was great with quips at parties,” The Best Man sets an intense pace from the start. You might think that a political play with many talking heads would be boring, but politics are not really the topic. We don’t even learn which political party the contenders belong to, nor does it matter. The topic is character. A clock starts ticking immediately, the stakes couldn’t be higher, and the structure is clever. Instead of giving you a clear hero to root for, all the way to the end of the play you are trapped on an edge, not knowing which of the two candidates to support. The final choice of winner satisfies, shedding definitive light on the personalities of the players involved.

Several actors deserve kudos for their performance. Doug Ford, playing Senator Joseph Cantwell, browbeat the other actors with an intensity that seemed perfectly self-righteous rather than self-knowingly malevolent. Don Leonard (Bill Russell) and Anna Koehler (Alice Russell) had more challenging roles; it is difficult to play weakness in a way that invites empathy. Meghann Bates stole the show as Mabel Cantwell, the wife of one of the candidates. She built upon the humor written in the script with her passive aggressive timing and hostile body language. She dominated her scenes in a way so strident and desperate that her bullying strength communicated weakness and personal doubt, a layered characterization. The program does not list a costume designer, but we loved Mabel Cantwell’s polka dot outfit, cute and ditzy, because it so perfectly matched her character. The colors of the suits gave hints to the characters’ natures, and lent diversity to the cast. Politics is full of “old white men in suits”, but the costuming and acting created differences between the characters, so that the audience was never confused as to who was who.

The set, by Greg Westfall, while basic, had a smooth and well-coordinated color theme, and a simple switch of furniture was all that was needed to transform one hotel room into another, without a moment of audience confusion. It’s a shame that the hopscotch scene, which made use of “lines on the floor” took place on a rug with no pattern of lines, surely an oversight, or perhaps the script could have been amended to have someone say, “But there are no lines there!” Although the actors talked past each other in a few scenes, instead of engaging in an exchange of emotional tones — for example when one character who is supposed to be interrupted stops talking a split second before the interruption — my expectation is that those were just opening night jitters that will surely be worked out between shows.

Unfortunately, the production did not quite rise to the 5-star level for two important reasons. The first was a missed opportunity for more humor. I sensed the script might have been studied more by the director to find comedic moments intended by the author, which would have broken the tension more, so that it could be built up again more effectively. For example, at one point, a character storms out of the room, but sips from a glass of booze on the way out. Making that a huge swig from a bottle would have been hilarious. Another character swipes her glass of bourbon and takes it out with her as she leaves in a huff. She could have stolen an entire bottle, stopped to think better of it, and taken two.

Second, the blocking was off throughout the play. On stage, “blocking” is where characters stand and move to, the word referring to whether actors block each other from audience view. For example, in the first scene, Bill knocks on his hotel bathroom door. His wife pokes out her head and shows nonverbally that she doesn’t want to come out, in a way that made only half the audience laugh. The other half of us couldn’t see, because Bill stood in the way.

Stage movements should be driven by character emotions. When we are angry or upset, we don’t sit still. The front of the stage was used insufficiently, with too much of the action behind the furniture. When Cantrell’s wife got angry, she went behind the furniture to complain instead of in front. When you answer the phone, use your upstage hand (the one away from the audience) so it doesn’t cover the downstage side of your face. Actors should cross in front of each other rarely. In addition, the blocking was too static. More movement, especially if an excuse can be found in the script for physical conflict, would have added dynamism to the dialogue-heavy script.

The Best Man is wonderfully intellectual but wonderfully accessible. Can I tell you a secret? I find some plays too challenging to enjoy. (Do not ever see one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”.) Other scripts entertain but have nothing to say. The Best Man avoids these extremes, the best of both worlds. It’s no wonder the Gore Vidal’s play, which has been called his best, was nominated for a Tony award and made into a 1964 movie. My 4-star rating is a strong recommendation for the Olathe Civic Theatre which doesn’t have the resources of commercial theatres, somehow finding their energy on top of their day jobs. I’m looking forward to the rest of the Olathe Civic Theatre season as well.

For more, see, with upcoming events including Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol, The Musical of Musicals, and God of Carnage.