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On the edge of an era

Down-and-dirty politics. It's as American as apple pie.

That's the theme of "The Best Man" by Gore Vidal, which opened Friday at the Camelot Theatre in Talent. The play chronicles the days just before a party convention, with two front-runners for the presidential nomination vying for the endorsement of an ailing and revered former president.

The dueling candidates in "The Best Man" are Bill Russell (Don Matthews), a witty, intellectual former secretary of state, and Joe Cantwell (David Dials), a scrappy, populist senator who will say anything or do anything to get elected.

Each man's past harbors a politically devastating secret. There is no doubt that the unscrupulous Cantwell will use the ammunition to knock off Russell. Will the high-minded Russell violate his standards and use his revelation to checkmate Cantwell?

Back in 1960, when Vidal wrote this rather cynical look at the political process, a convention of delegates from each state really selected the nominee. The public saw the theatrical state-by-state vote count. The real drama took place behind the scenes, with back-room deals and influence trading.

"The Best Man" first opened on Broadway in March 1960. The first of the televised debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon lay ahead. Vidal's play captures the essence of the last of the old political campaigns, on the edge of the era of television's influence and nationally pandering populism.

Camelot's production of "The Best Man" is directed by Roy Von Rains Jr., who was so good onstage as Willie Stark in the Camelot production of "All the King's Men" earlier this season.

Matthews deftly portrays the patrician Bill Russell. Russell disdains knee-jerk reactions to weighty problems and prefers to focus on the issues rather than resort to cheap slogans. His campaign manager, wryly played by Barbara Rains (though it's improbable a woman would have been a presidential campaign manager in 1960) has to remind him not to refer to Bertrand Russell and Oliver Cromwell or drop literary quotes as punch lines. Russell's weakness appears to be his reputation as a philanderer. His real secret is considerably darker.

Dials is spot-on as the brash, bullying Cantwell. Cantwell is raw energy, always playing to his audience. Dials captures the charisma — you really don't like this guy but you have to give him credit. When we learn what Cantwell hides in his past, we may be surprised at what he did but not at how he got away with it.

Director Von Rains cast veteran Grant Shepherd as former-president Arthur Hockstader. Shepherd at 96 years old is still a consummate actor. He poignantly captures Hockstader's zest for "politicking" along with the man's regretful sense of mortality as he battles cancer. Hockstader admires Russell's thoughtfulness but he also appreciates Cantwell's ruthlessness. He'd like a little of both in his protégé.

Renée Hewitt is Russell's long-suffering wife, Alice. Hewitt does a fine job of letting us see Alice's regret at her failed marriage as well as her continued support for the husband she admires. Vidal's play — and Camelot's production — sets up a contrast with Cantwell's wife, Mabel. Mabel, played by Presila Quinby, is all purring sexuality to men and hissing cattiness to women. The face-off between the sardonic Alice and the bitchy Mabel is positively delicious.

Shirley Patton plays Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, a chatty party operative who firmly dictates to the candidates and their wives what "the women" like or dislike. Patton perfectly conveys the steel claw under Gamadge's super-feminine exterior.

Von Rains himself does a brief but effective turn as Sheldon Marcus, a frightened former Army mate of Cantwell who is the source for Russell's damning information.

To recreate the feel of 1960, the Camelot production makes use of a large television screen at the back of the set. Sound and video designer Brian O'Connor treats us to grainy black and white commercials and cuts from television shows that reinforce the dialogue onstage. The play's action takes place in the hotel suites of the two candidates, and Don Zastoupil's set is filled with bits of period detail such as ice buckets, rotary dial telephones and chrome-framed chairs, with enough telling detail to distinguish the two men's styles. Mindy Holden designed the 'costumes and Virginia Carol Hudson did the women's '60s hairstyle wigs.

"The Best Man" plays at Camelot through Sunday, Oct. 28 — just before the Nov. 6 election. For tickets, see www.camelottheatre.org or call 541-535-5250.