It seems to be the baseline image of this or any presidential election year: two men squaring off, grinning foxy grins, each armed with political mud.
The picture may be a little grating at this stage of our national campaign marathon, but you have to admire how sharply it's drawn in Potomac Theatre Project's staging of "The Best Man." Gore Vidal's 1960 play is set during the good old days when nominations were settled during party conventions. It's a high-minded melodrama pitting William Russell, a noble but flawed intellectual (shades of Adlai Stevenson, several Massachusetts Democrats and Vidal) against Joseph Cantwell, a shameless, grandstanding hypocritical moralist (recalling copious real-life counterparts from Sen. Joseph McCarthy on down).
The best thing about director Richard Romagnoli's sometimes eccentric but largely penetrating production is the depiction of these two archetypal figures. Paul Morella and Nigel Reed give perceptive performances in the two roles. In this show, as in the country at large, the adversaries are evenly matched.
Aggressive political fare has long been the hallmark of the Potomac Theatre Project, but this year's three-play repertory at the Olney Theatre Center's smallish Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab strikes a relatively calm pose. This summer there's more inflammatory material on view at the multiplex. By now "The Best Man," with its recognizable American figures and entertainingly tart tone, plays like an early episode of "The West Wing." Chris Hayes's adaptation of "Measure for Measure" is too hysterically conspiracy-minded to win hearts and minds, and the best overall production of the rep, the lovely and affecting "Perfect Pie," is a class-conscious but generally apolitical work by Canadian writer Judith Thompson.
If the rabble-rousing spirit has dimmed, the Potomac Project's overarching intelligence has not. In "The Best Man," Romagnoli gets you to think about something that at first blush seems absurd by casting a woman as the outgoing president. Vivienne Shub plays the part with the knowingness of an old political hand. Her cool, appraising eye and veteran demeanor make her fairly persuasive in the part. But the notion of a female president suggests a progressiveness that is at odds with a subplot about who will win the women's vote, a presumably domesticated bloc controlled by Mrs. Gamadge (Barbara Pinolini, who manages to be at once formidable and prim).
Yet after a while, that inconsistency -- are women empowered or aren't they? -- begins to seem like the point. Hillary Rodham Clinton is widely accepted as a formidable candidate-in-waiting, but wasn't it just last winter that Howard Dean tried and failed to keep his wife from being dragooned into the usual stand-by-your-man accessory role? Score one for the director. And score one for Julie-Ann Elliott in the role of Russell's wife. She artfully captures the way smart and principled people can seem stupefied and even inept in the presence of schooled political maneuvering.
As Russell, Morella gives a terrific portrayal of a man who disdains the game but thinks he's exceptional enough to change the rules. Optimism blurs into righteousness and righteousness bleeds into bitterness. Morella navigates this terrain as if he knows it in his bones (which, as the son of Connie Morella, the former congresswoman, he almost certainly does). It's fascinating to watch this actor measure out Russell's undying hope with his mounting cynicism and anger.
On the other side, Reed does a great job of making sure that Cantwell comes across as more than just Russell's punching bag. Vidal created Cantwell with a certain amount of respect. He saw why such candidates succeed, and Read displays that appeal, too. Behind the automatic smile and aw-shucks delivery, Reed reveals a true believer, an embodiment of a simple popular spirit that has a surprising purity to it.
Purity is the subject of "Measure for Measure," in which a lax government gets back to the business of enforcing morality. Shakespeare's plot concerns a duke who turns over the reins to the dour and rigid Angelo; Angelo rules with an iron fist but finds himself going corrupt in the presence of a beautiful woman who begs for mercy for her convicted brother. The duke arranges his return in time to set things right.
Hayes cuts the play nearly in half and condenses it for six actors dressed largely in black by costume designer Tara Fenstermacher. But his efforts to convert the story into something wholly sinister don't quite work (though if you want to see how much "Measure for Measure" can be made to resemble "The Manchurian Candidate," this may be the show for you). As a director, Hayes forges a performance that is fast and lifeless; the venture isn't provocative from any angle.
"Perfect Pie," on the other hand, is, despite a plot that requires withholding the details of a terrible long-ago accident until the very end. Thirty years later, Patsy and Francesca -- the two women involved in the disaster -- revive their complicated childhood friendship. And Thompson's beautiful, uncommonly vivid writing keeps you hanging on every word.
The story is set in a small Canadian town. Francesca is the girl who left, becoming a successful actress. Patsy stayed behind to live the farm life. What's absorbing about the play is the depth and nuance of the relationship and how effortlessly it makes use of flashbacks and multiple casting, having three actors play each character at different ages. As Patsy, Mary Beth Wise is "farm strong," to use the character's words, and there is a straight line connecting Wise's performance with that of Tara Giordano (playing the teenage Patsy) and Laura Rocklyn (as the youngest Patsy). The woman, though worn by the years, is clearly recognizable in the child.
The glamorous Francesca, though, is a reinvented self. She used to be a grubby kid named Marie. Helen Hedman is chic and assured as Francesca, yet this sophisticated facade is carefully peeled back as she recalls the embattled younger versions of the character played by Balsen (the teen Marie) and Jennifer Driscoll (who is especially fierce and poignant as the youngest Marie).
Under Cheryl Faraone's direction, all the connections feel dense and real. The intimacy is impressive in each pairing; the kids are never portrayed as too precious or precocious. Hedman and Wise offer fine-grained work as the old friends who don't completely know one another anymore. No intellectual agitprop here: "Perfect Pie" is one for the heart.
The Best Man, by Gore Vidal. Directed by Richard Romagnoli. Costume design, Franklin Labovitz. Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes. Measure For Measure, adapted and directed by Chris Hayes. Approximately 11/2 hours.
Perfect Pie, by Judith Thompson. Directed by Cheryl Faraone. Costume design, Jule Emerson with Franklin Labovitz. Approximately 2 hours 15 minutes. For the rep: sets, Hallie Zieselman; lighting design, Alex Cooper. Through Aug. 8 at the Olney Theatre Center. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.