Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Not-so-Shocking Secrets

Farragut North
Written by Beau Willimon
Directed by Doug Hughes
Starring Dan Bittner, Kate Blumberg, John Gallagher, Jr., Chris Noth, Otto Sanchez, Olivia Thirlby, Isiah Whitlock, Jr.

Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20th Street
Performances October 22—November 29, 2008

Gallagher, Jr. and Noth in Farragut North (photo: Jacqueline Mia Foster)
Beau Willimon’s Farragut North begins with Stephen, the 25-year-old wunderkind press secretary of Governor Willis, a presidential candidate, regaling his drinking buddies (Ben, his eager assistant; Ida, a friendly New York Times correspondent; and Paul, who runs the Willis campaign) with war stories in an Iowa watering hole days before the Democratic caucus. Stephen’s perversely cynical attitude—reminiscent of a world-weary, middle-aged vet of dozens of such campaigns—underscores the playwright’s unoriginal but pertinent observation that politics is a hell where only scorched-earth policies survive to the next election cycle.

Coming on the heels of Barack Obama’s inspiring election victory, the skepticism and nastiness permeating the characters of Farragut North seem passé. It’s not that political operatives have suddenly become benign; but Willimon’s story of wheeling, dealing and backstabbing during a nasty campaign doesn’t add anything particularly imaginative or eye-opening to what we already know. There’s some incisive dialogue in Farragut North–along with superb acting and deft directing by Tony winner Doug Hughes (Proof)–but the play is merely a superficial slice of election-year melodramatics, populated with mouthpieces never made the least bit sympathetic by their author.

Stephen’s troubles begin following his meeting with Tom, the man who heads Willis’ main opponent’s campaign. Now, Stephen—forced to confront the true jadedness of the political arena—questions everything and everyone in his orbit: his loyalty to both his mentor Paul and the governor; his trust in Ben; and his relationship with Molly, the 19-year-old intern who admitted to a fling with Paul the morning after she and Stephen slept together.

By skillfully juggling these characters’ double dealings, Farragut North moves with the forward momentum of a perfectly-run campaign. Still, for all its persuasively-written scenes between operatives and reporters, there’s never a moment where the playwright gives us anything more substantial than a brief bit of schadenfreude over Stephen’s hasty revenge that ends the play. Aside from disloyalty—which is briefly discussed—the play’s cardinal sin of sleeping with a 19-year-old intern is unlikely to raise any eyebrows at this late date. If Willimon had disclosed a more shocking secret about one of his characters, then Farragut North would have far more bite–the supposed indiscretions trotted out in our just-ended presidential race, like Obama “palling” around with terrorists, were infinitely more creative.

Onstage, however, are several terrific actors, led by John Gallagher, Jr., whose Stephen is young and arrogant enough to be both whiz kid and easy dupe for the ruse that precipitates his downfall. As Paul, Chris Noth has a likably scruffy quality befitting someone who has lived his life exclusively in this business for 20 years, and Olivia Thirlby’s Molly nicely treads the fine line between precocious teenager and young woman only partly aware of her power over men.

Although unnecessarily frantic in between scenes (with video projections of TV talking heads accompanied by loud music), Doug Hughes’ staging has an overall slickness that keeps Farragut North—dramatically thin as it is—pointed in the right direction.

originally posted on timessquare.com

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