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Monday Jul 25 2016

Gripping political drama plays at Sutter Street Theatre

By: Gerry Camp

Since I began covering shows at Sutter Street Theatre four years ago, I have come to look forward every season to the annual offering of a play featuring Stephen Kauffman. After a distinguished legal career Kauffman began working in local theatre in his 60’s and has appeared in 25 plays and musicals winning many awards. For Sutter Street Kauffman and his wife (and frequent director) Janelle and their production team bring serious drama (and Neil Simon classics) to Sutter Street’s stage.

This year’s offering is Gore Vidal’s 1960 drama of presidential politics “The Best Man.” In 1960 the candidacy of the Democratic Party was split between Adlai Stevenson (whom Vidal supported) and John F. Kennedy (whom he despised). Vidal has blended the two candidates into the womanizing but politically principled Harvard-educated patrician William Russell (Blake Flores in the strongest performance I’ve seen from this regular Sutter Street actor and director) and Senator Joseph Cantwell (Ross Branch, a regular in Kauffman’s offerings, as a JFK with the humor and personality replaced by a riveting viciousness).

In 1960 political conventions were quite different from those of today. Rather than coronations of nominees selected in primaries and caucuses, conventions were conducted to choose, sometimes through many ballots, between candidates with their own groups of delegates. In the convention shown in this play both candidates seek the endorsement of ex-president Arthur Hockstader (Kauffman), which will ensure one of them the nomination. As he always does, Kauffman the actor disappears into the character, making the audience believe he must have been an effective and popular president and showing his delight in the backstage wheeling and dealing. The drama is created by the fact that each candidate has a secret bit of “dirt” about the other, unknown to the delegates, with the potential to destroy if it became known. Will they agree to keep what they know under wraps, or will one or both drop his bomb?

Director James Gilbreath has used his excellent cast to turn this somewhat dated play into a compelling, suspense-filled drama. I was especially impressed by Alison Miller as Russell’s estranged wife Alice, supporting her husband despite his infidelities, and by Rich Kirlin as Russell’s campaign manager Dick Jensen, who struggles to persuade the idealistic Russell to embrace the dirty realities of real politics.

It may seem risky for Sutter Street to offer a play about behind-the-scenes presidential politics to potential customers who may be weary of today’s political scene. To people who feel this way, I urge you, if you love theatre, to take a chance. This is a suspenseful, gripping drama by an outstanding playwright performed brilliantly by some of the best actors in the area at the peak of their talents. It’s excellence as drama will make you forget completely about the choices our current political scene offers.