Dan Bittner, Kate Blumberg, John Gallagher, Jr., Chris Noth, Otto Sanchez, Olivia Thirlby, Isiah Whitlock, Jr.
Once in a while, a political play comes along that embodies the sentiment of its time.
I’m happy to report that the Atlantic Theater Company’s Farragut North is the latest in a recent bunch (which includes David Hare’s Stuff Happens and Peter Morgan’s historical Frost/Nixon, among others) to capture expertly the essence of the political machine and glean from this neverending crooked-minded jumble an element of real drama.
The central figure in Farragut North is precocious press secretary Stephen Bellamy, who, at twenty-five finds himself running the presidential campaign of an underdog Democratic candidate who claims to be a force for change (sound familiar?).
Typically sharp as a wit, Stephen makes a few blunders on the road to the Iowa caucus, including sleeping with a nineteen-year-old intern and meeting with a representative of the opposing candidate’s campaign without the consent of his boss, veteran campaign manager Paul Zara. It’s the latter of these blunders that brings him to his inevitable downfall, but the former that seems like it just might bring him his revenge. The strength of the play is that, even when the bumps in the characters’ roads seem predictable, just how they’ll discover those pitfalls never ceases to transfix.
In part, this dramatic tension comes from the integrity and realism that the play sets forth. Playwright Beau Willimon knows a little something about politics. In the past, he’s served on the staff of campaigns for an array of politicians, including Senators Bill Bradley, Hillary Clinton, and Chuck Shumer, as well as Governor Howard Dean during his 2004 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Willimon understands the power and pragmatism of political jargon. His characters parse words and spit insults with aplomb; theirs is a language all their own.
In typical Greek tragedy-style dramatic form, our exalted hero is eventually brought low. Tony Award-winner John Gallagher, Jr. as Stephen embodies his character with bravado, repeatedly reassuring the characters (and himself) that he’s not a good man, mucking about in the dirty side of politics while struggling to hold onto his political loyalties. As Paul, Chris Noth (famous for portraying Mr. Big on TV’s Sex and the City) plays against type. Typically portrayed as an older male sexbomb, here he’s a constipated windbag of a political animal, dressed in baggy corduroys and outdoorsy boots despite the formality of the campaign trail. In the role of intern Molly, Juno actress Olivia Thirlby also manages to shine, proving herself a young actress of note. Thirlby manages to capture the delicate balance within her character between manipulation and victimization, much as Elizabeth Moss currently attempts less successfully uptown in Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow.
Doug Hughes, working with his fine company of actors, manages to shape Farragut North into a hot-tempered nail-biter of a show. At the ends of scenes, the lights drop abruptly, affording the action a satisfying forward thrust. Scenes never drag on past their expiration date, and situations manage to wrap themselves up satisfyingly without ever seeming pat. News channel-style projections by Joshua White and original music by David Van Tieghem up the ante even higher and maintain the omnipresence of the media throughout.
Incidentally, the title of the play refers to a Washington, D.C. subway stop, the mundane daily destination of those press secretaries who take on political consulting jobs after their time in the spotlight is up (and they’re all washed up). It’s where Stephen dreads he’ll end up if he allows himself to fail. This fear of falling short haunts him throughout the play, an anxiety that’s relatable to a broad cross-section of the population and one that may very have afflicted Willimon at one time or another as part of some political campaign or another. At least now we know that if playwright Willimon’s political career never takes off beyond its past successes, it’s clear that he won’t be ending up at Farragut North, but more likely as a powerful politically-charged voice in contemporary theatre.