Still flying high on Obama fumes? Can’t quite set your feet squarely back on earth? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt that way as I headed into Farragut North, which has just opened off-Broadway. The piece dials us back to those now distant days of January, when the US presidential primary season was in full swing and candidates and their staff crunched their rivals underfoot like week-old snow in Des Moines.
Among the victims in Beau Willimon’s two-act, nine-scene drama are a 19-year-old intern, Molly, whose idealism tumbles as quickly as her hair once it is freed for a sex scene. Most of the others (in the cast of seven) are too pushy, striving or cold-heartedly professional to embrace victim status.
In fact, the central character, Stephen Bellamy, a 25-year-old press secretary for a Democratic candidate named Morris, flees loserdom. Though the story initially hints at a wide political context, it settles on to the ambitious Stephen getting tricked by older political operatives. He strikes back at his boss, a campaign manager portrayed by Chris Noth (Sex and the City’s Mr Big), and at that jeans-tight underling Molly. In the play’s Iowa setting, revenge – and everything else – is served cold.
This play’s timing, while not glacial, is at best warmed-over. Politics, eternally, may be war by other means, but a story set at a campaign’s beginning is going to have a tough time in the weeks after a historic election. People trying to come down from their high would do better to scan the nerve-jangling daily business pages than queue for tickets here.
I will spare detailed comparisons with sharper handlings of Willimon’s material: by the writer Aaron Sorkin on The West Wing and by Mike Nichols, the director of Primary Colors and the man who was at one point interested in a Broadway staging of Farragut North. (The title refers to the metro stop of a politician-dense area of Washington, DC.)
I suspect that George Clooney, who is putting together a movie version of Willimon’s play, will force the writer to fix what feels flawed now that the story is on stage. The unquestionably able Willimon, additionally, will benefit from the recession of the Obama wave. By 2010, when the film is scheduled for release, new campaigns will have planted their Ugg boots in Des Moines.
Until then, it is worth singling out the performances of John Gallagher Jr, breaking free of his string of tortured-teen roles with a pulsating turn as Stephen; Noth as the constipated campaign manager; and Isiah Whitlock Jr as a seen-it-all senior staffer for a rival candidate. Doug Hughes’s direction is fine, though if there were more life in the dialogue (the crackle of the opening scene (pictured), set in a bar, embers out as the play progresses), I wouldn’t have found the staging slightly static.
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