Farragut North is the Washington D.C. subway stop where political has-beens debark to do the only thing left for them in the world of politics—boring, thankless consultant jobs. It’s also the title of Beau Willimon’s exciting, riveting new play about the behind-the-scenes maneuverings (and back-stabbings) of a Presidential primary campaign, a 2008 off-Broadway production now transferred to the Geffen Playhouse for its West Coast Premiere.

Stephen Bellamy (Chris Pine) is the 25-year-old whiz-kid press secretary for would-be Democratic Presidential candidate Governor Morris in his campaign to win the Iowa caucus from rival Democrat Pullman. Despite his youth, Stevie is a veteran campaigner who can spin just about any off-the-cuff remark to his advantage. Take for example an earlier campaign in which Stevie’s candidate was casually referred to by his opponent as a “putzhead.”  A harmless enough remark, one would think, but Stevie’s candidate happened to be Jewish, and a bit of googling revealed that putzhead is Yiddish for dickhead, thus providing the perfect opportunity to accuse the unfortunate misspeaker of anti-Semitism. All Stevie needed to do was to get this story on the front page of the New York Times—which he did.  The story then went statewide and Stevie’s candidate won by twelve points.

Thus recalls Stevie as he sits in a booth at a Des Moines diner with Morris campaign manager Paul Zara (Chris Noth), New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Mia Barron), and eager-beaver campaign newbie Ben (Dan Bittner). The Iowa race is Pullman’s first stop on what Stevie and Paul hope will be a fast track to the White House, Paul predicting that an Iowa win will gain them two million supporters overnight.  If they continue playing their cards right, they’ll win by nine points, predicts the veteran of six Presidential campaigns.  “We’ll make the impossible possible again,” Paul declares with the confidence of a past and future winner.

When Ida excuses herself briefly, Paul takes advantage of the moment and sends Ben away for drink refills.  Left alone with Stevie, Paul outlines his latest plan to insure an Iowa win.  Stevie is to leak some information to Ida (about an endorsement which will guarantee Morris half of the black vote) on condition that she “keep it private,” and do it so subtly that she’ll never realize she’s being used.  Child’s play, says Stevie, who’s so fired up by the Morris campaign that he finds himself “starry-eyed again for the first time in years.” Ida returns, Paul exits, and Stevie is as good as his word, telling the Times reporter that what he’s about to reveal is “off off off the record and don’t tell Paul”—and she buys it.  With a boy wonder like Stevie at work, was there ever any doubt?

Since all work and no play would make Stevie quite a dull boy, the young go-getter makes a date for later that night with Molly (Olivia Thirlby), a sexy nineteen-year-old intern working for the Morris campaign.  Perhaps not the most professional thing to do, but hey, Stevie and his girlfriend are on a break, and theirs was always pretty much an open relationship anyway, so what’s the harm in a little hanky-panky?  

Before Stevie and Molly’s eleven o’clock get-together, however, Stevie gets a call from Tom Duffy (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), a top gun with the Pullman campaign asking to meet with Stevie—ASAP and behind Paul’s back.  Curious about Tom’s intentions, Stevie agrees to meet with the Pullman hotshot and almost tells Paul.  Almost, but he doesn’t.

Arriving for the hush-hush meeting, Stevie quickly demands what Paul wants from him.  “It’s simple,” Paul replies.  “You’re working for the wrong man.” Why this interest in Stevie in particular? “You exude something,” explains Tom. “You draw people in.  Even reporters who hate you, love you.  And you’re going to lose Iowa.”  “Bullshit!” exclaims Stevie, until Tom hands him a folder with some shocking information inside. Though polls show Morris clearly in the lead, the Pullman campaign has somehow managed to infiltrate the polling sample with their own people, representing ten percent of the vote and only pretending to support Morris.  The goal of this maneuvering is to make the Morris campaigners over-confident, and give the Pullman campaigners the political edge. “I’m showing you these numbers because I want you to work for a winner,” Tom tells Stevie, and when Stevie protests that it’s illegal, and not something you’d expect from a Democrat, Tom retorts that it’s time the Democrats started acting like Republicans. “I could never work for someone like you,” insists Stevie. “People like me get keys to the White House,” replies Tom. Just claim irreconcilable differences with Pullman, and join the winning team.  What about his loyalty to Paul? What about their friendship? “Fuck Paul,” says Tom. “Do you want friends, or do you want to work for the President?”

If Farragut North were a meal, the above synopsis would be merely the appetizer. Trust me, there are many more courses to be served, and if you think you know what’s coming up next, think again. “Chef” Willimon has cooked up surprises galore—and a humdinger of a dessert you’ll be talking about long after the final blackout.  See Farragut North, and you’ll never look at a political campaign in the same way again.

Willimon worked for Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, and while some of the backroom meeting particulars must come from the playwright’s imagination, everything else (the raw ambition, the thirst for power, and the way politics can corrupt even the most idealistic of souls) has the ring of truth.  You might not want any of these people as friends, but they’re a heck of a lot of fun to watch.  At the same time, you recoil in horror at the realization that these are precisely the kind of people hard at work planning the next campaign you and I will throw our wholehearted support behind—though perhaps not as idealistically as before seeing Farragut North.

It’s clear from the get-go that Willimon knows the people he’s writing about, and it shows in the dimensions he gives each character and the snappy dialog he writes. Even smaller roles like Ben (as sweet as Eve Harrington ever was) or nineteen-year-old Molly (with about as much experience in the sack as Stevie has in politics) or a chatty waiter (with a vegetable as a brother thanks to the U.S. military) are finely drawn characters. 

Noth, Whitlock, Thirlby, and Bittner are reprising the roles they created in the play’s off-Broadway debut under Tony-winner Doug Hughes’ direction.  They are joined here by emerging movie star Pine, Barron, and Justin Huen in a powerhouse cast delivering electric performances each and every one. 

With the current success of Star Trek, Pine could have made the easier and more lucrative decision to stick with movie work.  Instead, the twenty-eight-year-old has elected to undertake an exhausting theatrical role (Stevie rarely leaves the stage and is rarely without something to say) and prove himself an actor to be reckoned with. Never anything less than spontaneous, and absolutely believable in the role, Pine has everything needed to become a major stage and screen star—looks, sex appeal, charm, and gobs of talent, and the Geffen production is richer for his presence in it.

Noth too is a familiar TV and movie name, but the Broadway vet is also a stage actor extraordinaire.  Though his role is smaller than Pine’s, Noth’s more experienced (though no less calculating) Paul makes for a great older counterpoint to Stevie, and just wait till the second act when the two Chrises are face to face and the sparks fly. 

Barron, Thirlby, and Bittner lend excellent support as a trio of political players, none of whom ends up being who he or she first appears to be.  “Never trust anyone in politics” has never been truer than in Farragut North. Finally, Huen does his accustomed fine work in a pair of roles, Frank and particularly as the aforementioned waiter.

Hughes’ direction keeps the play moving fast and furiously, and the design team makes Farragut North look and sound every bit as exciting.  David Korins’ set appears at first entrance to the Geffen to be a blue and white checkered box, but the colors disappear as set pieces role in and out, transforming the stage into a diner, a bar, a hotel room, a campaign office.  Set changes are accompanied by David Van Tieghem and Walter Tarbach’s pulsating sound design, Van Tieghem’s driving original music, and Joshua White and Bec Stupak’s TV news video collages flashed lickety-split against the rear and side walls of the set.  Paul Gallo’s striking lighting design and Catherine Zuber’s just-right costumes complete the superb design elements originally created for the show’s Atlantic Theater production.

From Farragut North’s opening lines to its absolutely satisfying coda, the energy inside the Geffen is electric, and not just on stage. Rarely can I recall an audience more involved in a play’s action and in the twists and turns of its plot than was the case last night.  Farragut North is exciting, thought-provoking, conversation-starting theater at its best.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
June 25, 2009
                                                                   Photos: Michael Lamont

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