The Best Man is a long, talky peek behind the scenes of a presidential primary in 1960 Philadelphia. If audiences attending the Compass Players’ performance were voting for one of the two candidates in Gore Vidal’s preachy play, rather than being entertained by them, it’s likely that Matthew Cary’s Joseph Cantwell would win by a landslide. His actorly opponent, Steve Murphy, turns in a nicely tuned performance — think Henry Fonda by way of Jack Benny — but his scenes are saddled with stodgy direction and a lesser supporting cast than Cary, whose scenes and fellow players belong to a different production.
The play unfolds in a pair of hotel suites (actually the same set, wedged into a black box at Peoria Center for the Performing Arts and laboriously reset between scenes), where populist Southern senator Cantwell and Honest Abe liberal candidate William Russell duke it out with their staffs, their wives, a former president, and eventually one another. The banter and situations are occasionally timely, particularly when talk turns to honest presidents and clean campaigning, and commentary on atheism and liberalism are as fresh as Democratic daisies. Not so fresh are references to Joseph Alsop, Jack Parr, and Hamlet, all of which clunked to the floor without a laugh on opening night.
Hindered by Jeanna Michaels’ sluggish direction (should this play really last three hours?), the production benefits from some lovely performances. As the potential first ladies, Kandyce Hughes and Zoe Yeoman are studies in contrast, the former a saucy siren, the latter a graceful lace doily, each of them a master class in the subtleties of good acting. C.D. Macaulay is a terrifically blustery ex-president, and Derek Gaboriault, while 30 years too young for his role as Cantwell’s ex-military pal, offers a frenetically funny pair of scenes.
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And then there is Jeffrey Middleton, who should not be allowed on any stage where other performers are meant to be seen, so distracting are his wonderful performances in any play or musical. Here, he is a campaign manager named Blades, equal parts Wallace Beery and Daddy Warbucks, stomping through every scene, radiating comedy even in repose.
Originally intended as an attack on the Kennedy clan, whom Vidal despised, The Best Man is, in its Peoria production, less relevant than it is entertaining. Like the shenanigans of our current president, it offers laughter in the face of danger, but requires saintly patience to endure its duration.
The Best Man continues through January 28 at Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, 10580 North 83rd Drive in Peoria. Call 623-815-7930 or visit theaterworks.org.