Review: Gore Vidal’s ‘The Best Man’ at Sutter Street Theatre

A pleasant evening of theatre seated near a loud fan


Odin Rasco

The tone of the scene shifts early into ‘The Best Man’ when Former President Art Hocksteader (Stephen Kauffman, right) announces he is dying to presidential candidate Bill Russel (Tom Loeprich, left). Russel struggles to pursue political success while still staying true to his ethical principles.

Odin Rasco

In drafting this review, I was faced with a dilemma; how does one fairly review a show when the primary complaint is a noisy neighbor? And what if that neighbor is the cause of consternation and comfort simultaneously? 

On the whole, I had a pleasurable evening seeing Sutter Street Theatre’s production of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” last weekend. The play is remarkably poignant despite being over 60 years old. 

The story follows presidential hopeful Bill Russel as he tries to clinch the party nomination while staying true to his principles. Opposing Russel is Joe Cantwell, a politician willing to do anything to grab the nomination – to him, the end always justifies the means. Pulled between the two is the ailing Art Hocksteader, the former president whose support would be vital to locking the candidacy. 

The cast performed admirably; Bill Russel’s collegiate nervousness is brought out through Tom Loeprich’s ability to smoothly switch from glib lines paired with loose, almost fidgety physicality at one moment to strong focus and firm posture when switching into politician mode. Mark Ludwig’s voice carries the perfect balance of venomous creature and used car salesman to portray Joe Cantwell as the epitome of a politician; always focused on the next move. 

The show-stealer of the production is Stephen Kauffman whose portrayal of Art Hocksteader, the last of the ‘hick’ presidents is enough to justify paying  full ticket price for the show. Hocksteader is a magnetic personality; the last of an old guard on the way out and drawn to stir up some political drama one last time, and Kauffman’s delicate balance of sincerity, authority and mischief is perfect for the role.

The sole complaint against the production is a byproduct of the intimate nature of the theatre. Sutter Street Theatre by my estimate has seating for something to the tune of fifty audience members and is very close to the stage itself. 

In many ways, this is an absolute boon; actors can bring a subtlety to their movements and expressions that would be wasted on a larger and more distant audience and the setting does lend itself towards a more engrossing focus on the action at hand. 

The only problem is a certain noisy neighbor.

The noise “Mr. HEPA” makes can cause an unwelcome distraction during the show, but does the kindness of keeping the theatre as COVID-19 safe as can be reasonably expected. Just try to make sure to get seats on stage left if you are able. (Odin Rasco)

The rub is that Sutter Street Theatre has opted to install a high-efficiency particulate air filter into this very small venue. I admit that the comfort of knowing that such a system was close by and working did assuage the fears I have had about returning to theatres and sitting for hours in a crowd of strangers. 

Unfortunately, the machine which has been charmingly dubbed “Mr. HEPA” is not a quiet one, and the constant fan noise that came from its location directly off of the stage was a constant distraction that served to make quieter moments of dialogue hard to catch. I have no fix for the issue, however; in many ways, I think the safety provided may well be worth the distraction it may cause, but I feel I would be remiss if I had not mentioned it in this review.

Even with Mr. HEPA’s tendency towards being a noisy neighbor in the theatre, I still feel that “The Best Man” is a show that is most certainly worth making the time to go see.