Review: `The Best Man’

The cast of the Aurora Theatre Company’s The Best Man by Gore Vidal includes (from left) Tim Kniffen, Deb Fink, Charles Shaw Robinson, Michael Patrick Gaffney, and Michael Cassidy. Photos by David Allen


Vidal’s `Best Man’ wins at Aurora
(three ½ stars)

Just in case you haven’t already had it up to here with presidential politics, you should turn your attention to Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, where Gore Vidal’s 1960 The Best Man is showing us unpleasant things about the way we elect our leaders.

Director Tom Ross guides an astute cast through 2 ½ hours of Vidal’s quips, observations and jabs, all on the subject of the dirty business involved in getting to the White House. It’s a swell, snappy production with lots of laughs, some of which hurt more than others.

The play may be almost 50 years old, but it reverberates – a scary thing in a country that has supposedly changed so much. The only real difference between the two candidates fighting it out for their party’s nomination at the Philadelphia convention and the ones at the conventions we just saw in Denver and Minneapolis is the absence of mobile phones, Blackberries, laptops, blogs, 24-hour news pundits and hordes of hovering staff members.

At the core, Vidal shows us, politics has changed very little, and in the end, America’s choice will be “the angel of grayness…as usual.”

The candidates squaring off are William Russell (Charles Shaw Robinson), a former Secretary of State, and Joseph Cantwell (Tim Kniffin), a reigning senator.

Russell, described as a “fancy Dan from back east,” has a tendency to joke too much and quote the likes of Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell and Bertrand Russell to a confused press corps. He’s an intellectual in politics and therefore the subject of mistrust.

Cantwell is slick and ambitious, a true politician who’s willing to sling mud to get what he wants. And that’s just what he does. He gets the dirt on Russell (illegally) and times to release it at the convention in such a way that Russell will have to withdraw from the race.

But Russell has a couple things on his side: a conscience (which some would say makes him a wishy-washy flip-flopper), intelligence and the backing of the Truman-esque former President Arthur Hockstader (Charles Dean). Together, with the help of Russell’s chief of staff (Michael Patrick Gaffney), they go in search of dirt on Cantwell and find something juicy, something that makes him “not normal.”

“I don’t believe it,” Russell says. “Anyone with that awful wife and those ugly children has to be normal.”

While the men get ugly, the women get…ugly. Russell’s wife, Alice (Emilie Talbot) is uptight and a little cold. She and her husband have actually been separated for years but are putting up a united front for the sake of the campaign. Mabel Cantwell (Deb Fink), on the other hand, has a little bit of the Lady Macbeth vibe as she does everything she can to keep his political machine running smoothly.

Vidal stirs up sensational fun as he creates a political potboiler that, as entertaining as it is, doesn’t cut terribly deep. It’s like a good B-movie that stirs things up and lets the viewer take it from there.

The actors do all they can to find three dimensions in the play. Robinson is perfectly cast as the conflicted intellectual, and so is Kniffin, whose Cantwell seems like a power-mad little boy much of the time.

Dean is positively presidential as Hockstader, and he seems to relish being the “hick president” who still wields a mighty power stick.

In supporting roles, Fink’s blond would-be first lady is deliciously bitchy, all grace and smiles and viciousness. And Gaffney, Talbot, Elizabeth Benedict (in multiple roles) and Jackson Davis (in several roles, including a satisfyingly slimy one) populate the intimate Aurora stage – designed with 1960s hotel flair by Richard Olmsted – with genuine character.

Vidal’s view, in the end, is cynical. Is there any other option when it comes to American politics? He doesn’t have any faith at all in our electoral process, and we end up getting what we deserve. Someone brings up the notion of an immoral president, to which former President Hockstader retorts: “They hardly come in any other size.”

Try not keeping that in mind for the next two months.

The ladies of the Aurora Theatre Company’s The Best Man (seated on the couch) are, from left, Emilie Talbot, Elizabeth Benedict and Deb Fink.

The Best Man continues through Sept. 28 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Review: `Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain’

opened Jan. 13, 2007 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, San Francisco

Wacky `Dead Mother’ springs to vibrant life
three 1/2 stars Shirley not to be missed

Dead Mother, contrary to its title, is quite a lively evening of theater.

The full title of David Greenspan’s wickedly playful, intelligent play, Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain, gives you some idea of the writer’s general tone: funny, irreverent and secretly serious.

A co-production of San Francisco theater companies Traveling Jewish Theatre and Thick Description, Dead Mother opened marks the 17-year-old play’s first production since its premiere at New York’s Public Theater.

It’s easy to see why the play might scare companies less brave than TJT and Thick D. Here you have a farce involving sexual identity, cross-dressing, bestiality, Greek mythology, five acts and enough speedy dialogue to choke an untrained actor.

Thick D’s artistic director, Tony Kelly, is at the helm of Dead Mother, which is reassuring from the start, and he has assembled a cast of Bay Area stalwarts, all of whom do superb, even inspired, work here.

New York playwright (and actor and director) Greenspan seems to take his cue from Tony Kushner (Angels in America), who has called Greenspan “the most talented theater artist of my generation.” So, who knows? Maybe Kushner was inspired by Greenspan.

Whatever, Greenspan seems to relish breaking boundaries.

He sets up Dead Mother as a rollicking farce as Daniel (Gabriel Marin) has found the woman, Maxine (Deb Fink), he wants to marry. Trouble is, Maxine will only marry him if she can meet his mother, and Daniel’s imperious Jewish mother, Shirley, is dead.

Ever the creative thinker, Daniel goes to his brother, Harold (Liam Vincent).

It seems that years ago, while Shirley was still alive, Harold dressed up as his mother and successfully fooled his father, Melvin (Louis Parnell), into thinking he was Shirley.

If Harold is so convincing, why shouldn’t Harold pretend to be Shirley for just one more night so Maxine can be welcomed into the family?

Of course all goes swimmingly until Harold’s father shows up, sees his dead wife and is effectively convinced it’s her ghost.

This would all be so much gender-bending Neil Simon if Greenspan didn’t throw in some brainy, wacky stuff as well. When Maxine, Daniel, “Shirley” and Melvin go to the theater, we go with them and watch Greenspan’s randy take on the Greeks, with the cast playing the “actors” wearing togas with genitals on the outside (hilarious costumes are by Raul Aktanov).

Just what is all that Greek stuff? When Maxine gets back from the show, she asks the same question, but she says the play was “nice…we supported the arts and got out of the house.”

With the appearance of a sperm whale (played with Moby Dick style by Dena Martinez), the play heads off into self-conscious surrealism. Act 4 is performed as a reading, with the actors behind music stands, describing the epic action — Alice B. Toklas (played with elan by Corey Fischer) takes Harold on a guided tour through hell — that would be virtually impossible to stage on a shoestring budget.

The final scene is essentially a family drama, minus the farce, although Harold is still playing his mother, but the confrontations with his father are too intense and deeply felt to be comedy.
The epilogue, delivered gamely by Martinez, is far too conventional to wrap up a play that is so grandly — and oddly — entertaining.

Still, Dead Mother is a play that lingers because of the wonderful work by director Kelly and his actors — especially Vincent, whose extraordinary as Harold/Shirley with only a string of pearls to differentiate them, and Fink, who’s mile-a-minute mouth is a wonder.
Greenspan throws an awful lot onto the stage, but most of it works. Dead Mother is as audacious as it is funny, as head-spinning and confusing as it is beguiling and delightful.

Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain continues through Feb. 17 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $31-$34. Call 800-838-3006 or visit or for information.