While many Austin theater companies are currently producing some Halloween fright fests, Paradox Players is offering a play about the scariest evil of all: politicians. With THE BEST MAN, the famous comedy-drama by Gore Vidal, Austin's Paradox Players shows us that not much has changed in the dirty world of American politics in over 50 years, a well-timed message given the upcoming election.
The play, originally written in 1960, tells the story of two Presidential hopefuls at their unnamed party's convention as they both vie for the official Presidential nomination. Both stoop to character smearing mood slinging to secure the nomination. While the idea that the party convention is more than a masturbatory, self-congratulatory bacchanal may be a bit dated, the statements about character assassination, even within the same party, still ring true. If you disagree, look at statements made by the Republican hopefuls earlier this year and by Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton four years ago.
Director Gary Payne, who also serves as Paradox Players' Artistic Director, clearly understands these characters, politics, and what men will do for power. He and his cast give us a very polished, professional, and engaging rendition of this play, though I do wish his blocking would not rely so heavily on placing the characters on a sofa planted at stage left. While politics, and the text as well for that matter, is fast paced and action-packed, Payne sometimes finds difficulty in physically manifesting that excitement in his blocking, but overall he does well with the challenges of a high-stakes drama confined to two small hotel suites.
Payne's fourteen person cast is extraordinary as well. David Morgan Shaw instills a strong dose of vulnerability in Presidential hopeful William Russell, an interesting choice though sometimes it makes you wonder if his Russell truly believes he can win the election or even cares about the outcome. As his just-for-show wife Alice, Cynthia Schiebel is heartbreaking. And Russell's campaign manager Dick Jensen, played here by Frank Benge, is sly and cunning without being sinister, a hard line to tread.
In the other camp, Peter Blackwell is superb as Russell's adversary, Joseph Cantwell. His Cantwell is enigmatic and charismatic but dangerous in his lust for power. Blackwell's take on the role is equal parts snake charmer and charming snake. As Cantwell's southern belle wife, Mabel, Peggy Schott gives a scene-stealing turn. She is delightful and sweet but much smarter and more influential than she looks at first glance. But the true star of the show is Don Owen as President Arthur Hockstader. His Hockstader is a wise, respected War Horse, a lovable but shrewd grandfather type with an acerbic wit. You will wish our country had a President like him.
While it may be difficult to see before its closing this weekend, I highly recommend THE BEST MAN to any theater aficionado or anyone with a passion for politics. Vidal's writing is brilliant and the acting is fantastic. Paradox Players win by a landslide.
RUN TIME: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
THE BEST MAN ends its run today, Sunday October 21st at 3pm. Performed at the Howson Hall Theater in the Unitarian Universalist Church, located at 4700 Grover Avenue Austin, TX 78756. Tickets are $15, $10 for students and seniors. For tickets and information, go to www.paradoxplayers.org