Faint shouts and cheers waft periodically from the rear of the stage during the Keegan Theatre’s “The Best Man.” Gore Vidal’s 1960 drama imagines an eventful presidential convention, and the occasional giddy sound effects evoke delegates who are busying themselves with speeches, applause and balloting on the convention floor, a short distance from the hotel suite that is the tale’s primary setting.
Would that the vim of those unseen partisans could animate this wooden production, which trots out all the usual ideas about politics being a ruthless, Machiavellian business, yet presents characters that seem — for the most part — devoid of energy, let alone personality or political charisma. Add in a lot of unimaginative staging, which often plants actors in a spot and leaves them there, looking stiff, and you have a show that might make the most die-hard theater enthusiast wish she’d stayed home to watch “House of Cards.”
A couple of performances in this large-cast production are reasonably lively: Most notably, Kevin Adams exudes an adequate amount of seedy bonhomie as Arthur Hockstader, an aging former president who drawlingly describes himself as “the last of the Great Hicks.” When Hockstader sprawls on a sofa near the center of the prim, columned hotel-suite set, bending an amused but cynical eye on his fellow politicos, the play is watchable. (Christina A. Coakley and Timothy H. Lynch directed “The Best Man.” Michael Innocenti is scenic designer; Dan Deiter designed the sound.)
Unfortunately, Hockstader is only a supporting player in Vidal’s plot, which focuses on two politicians who are competing bitterly to become their party’s presidential nominee. William Russell (Mark A. Rhea) is an intellectual who disdains polls and spin doctoring and believes in campaigning on issues; he is also a philanderer. Joseph Cantwell (Colin Smith) is a showboating opportunist who knows his way around a smoke-filled room; he is also a devoted husband. When damning bits of opposition research fall into the hands of each camp, Russell’s idealism and Cantwell’s resourcefulness are put to the test.
Neither Rhea nor Smith endows his character with any hint of interior life. The failure is particularly noticeable in Rhea’s case, because Vidal intended Russell (essentially the play’s hero) to have a whimsical side: This is a politician who quotes Oliver Cromwell to reporters and, when out of the public eye, amuses himself by reading omens into a hopscotch game he plays on patterned rugs. Rhea is not very convincing during an early hopscotch sequence, and thereafter all traces of whimsy go out the window. Like Smith, he spends a lot of time looking grimly flinty.
Sheri Herren is more persuasive in the role of Russell’s wife, Alice, but the character comes across as so wan and resigned as to further sap scenes of vitality. Portraying Cantwell’s wife, Mabel, Susan Marie Rhea is an implausible package of mannerisms (pursed lips, manically tapping fingers, etc.). Even Rena Cherry Brown, who has buoyed some previous Keegan productions, gives a rather flat performance as the political poobah Sue-Ellen Gamadge.
Stan Shulman does bustle about engagingly as Russell’s stressed campaign manager, and Innocenti supplies a moment of comedy when he portrays a nervous military veteran who knows a secret from Cantwell’s past. But these cameos hardly compensate for the stiltedness of “The Best Man” overall. It’s as though the cast and directors had developed such a fixed idea of politics as an unscrupulous endeavor that they had forgotten to make their politicians human beings.
Wren is a freelance writer.
The Best Man
By Gore Vidal. Directed by Christina A. Coakley and Timothy H. Lynch; costume design, Erin Nugent; lighting, Katie McCreary; hair and makeup, Craig Miller; properties, Carol Floretta H. Baker. With Peter Finnegan, Nello DeBlasio and others. About 21 / 2 hours. Through Feb. 22 at the Andrew Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets: $30-35. Call 703-892-0202 or visit www.keegantheatre.com.