– just-released “Ides of March” reviewed here –
Beau Willimon’s Farragut North is the kind of “built in Washington” drama that DC theater aficionados clearly will enjoy. In addition, for die-hard political junkies, Farragut North, crisply directed by Clay Hopper for Olney Theatre Center, offers a preview of coming attractions in 2012. That’s due in large part to its hyper-focus on of the kind of political ground game that’s already underway in the hinterlands of far-flung Iowa, a state whose overly-hyped, overly-covered early caucuses can often make or break a front-runner’s status in either party.
Farragut North unfolds in just 24 hours, adding significantly to the tension that’s already building in a political campaign that’s fraying around the edges.
The play opens in a nondescript bar at the Hotel Fort Des Moines where young wunderkind and political PR spinmeister Stephen Bellamy (Danny Yoerges) mesmerizes his small audience with a bracing tale of political skullduggery in which he, of course, is the hero. His audience, at various times consists of crack political newspaper reporter Ida Horowicz (Susan Lynskey), campaign go-fer Ben (Kevin Hasser), and Stephen’s boss, campaign manager Paul Zara (Bruce Nelson).
Stephen soon exhibits strong signs of late-stage hubris, the kind of overweening pride that always goeth before the inevitable fall. Exhibit A is his supposedly secret rendezvous with Tom Duffy (Alan Wade), the campaign manager of a major opponent. Mix in a one-night stand with perky, over-sexed teenage intern Molly (Elisabeth Ness), shake all ingredients vigorously, and we soon have Stephen Bellamy confronting the eve of his political destruction.
If Farragut North has a strong air of authenticity about it, that’s no coincidence. Beau Willimon started out his own career not as a playwright but as a young political operative himself, working on a number of Democratic campaigns, most prominently the meteoric rise and spectacular fall of über-Progressive Howard Dean whose own 2004 presidential campaign self-destructed in Iowa when a remarkable video of his wild jungle-cheer, aka the “Dean Scream,” went fatally viral on the Internet.
Perhaps burned out by that experience, Willimon eventually left active campaigning, looking for something else to do. But rather than write a roman à clef on his experiences, he turned to writing this play, creating something quite remarkable in the process.
Premiering in New York in 2008 and soon reprised in this area during the 2009 Contemporary American Theatre Festival (CATF) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, Farragut North could be one of the best political plays ever to hit the stage. But it’s not a play for everyone—particularly for folks who don’t like to see how political sausage is made.
In the primary-season trenches and beyond, campaigning is nothing less than a contact sport more violent in its way than the gridiron life of an NFL linebacker. In politics, as in football, winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. And that’s the way Beau Willimon’s Stephen Bellamy plays it. No trick is too dirty, no lie is too outrageous, no spin is too ingenious if it gets your candidate over the top. The prize? Glory, bragging rights, money, fame, women (it’s a testosterone-driven world), and a glorious afterlife as a megabucks lobbyist. (Hence the play’s title, the Red Line Metro stop in the heart of Washington’s lobbying and political consulting district.)
But most importantly, the ultimate reward for political hacks everywhere, be they candidates or staffers, is power. Access to power, the levers of power, and indeed, power itself is what everyone in Willimon’s play is after. Power is the brass ring that drives the blind ambition of Farragut North’s political animals.
At most, there are two truly likeable characters in his play—a down-on-his-luck waiter (Timothy Andres Pabon) and Ben, the eager staffer who Stephen treats with nonstop condescension and contempt. The former is an actual, down-to-earth Iowa voter while Ben is a political idealist who as yet has not walked through the looking glass and into the unrelenting ugliness of political reality.
As for the rest—they’re the kind of people who give Washington DC a deservedly bad rap in Flyover Country. Only in his mid-20s, Stephen Bellamy, already known as a kingmaker, has the morals of an alley cat and an ego as wide as the Atlantic. Like onetime Nixon aide Chuck Colson, Farragut North’s top political ops Paul Zara and Tom Duffy would gleefully walk over their own grandmothers to elect their respective candidates. Intrepid newswoman Ida Horowicz will do anything for a scoop, even if that includes threatening and destroying a source. And—shades of Monica Lewinsky—even chirpy intern Molly isn’t beneath aggressively sleeping her way to the top.
Having had the opportunity to see both CATF’s 2009 staging of Farragut North as well as this one, I’d have to say that Olney’s budget production comes off quite well. While CATF’s production had a snazzier look and feel, Olney’s prison-like sliding walls and minimalist props give this iteration a grittier, more desperate feel, something that’s not lost on the cast, which collectively turns in a uniformly top-notch performance.
In addition, the shadowy, unscripted movements of the characters during each scene change, intriguingly underline the evolving relationships among the various players, undoubtedly a nice touch by the director.
As Stephen Bellamy, Danny Yoerges is brilliantly kinetic as a young political phenom who gets in over his head before he even realizes what’s happened. Yoerges’ carefully calibrated transformation of Stephen from cock-of-the-walk in the play’s opening scene through his gradual descent into political Hades is surprisingly riveting. His character is reprehensible, of course. And yet we ultimately develop a surprising degree of sympathy for him even as he burns each and every one of his bridges behind him.
Looking oddly like a slightly younger Sam Axe from USA TV’s popular series “Burn Notice,” Bruce Nelson portrays Paul Zara as a mostly low-key political schemer who generally manages to stay one step ahead of his opponents as well as his employees. You want to trust him, but are not quite sure that’s a good idea. He’s completely amoral, but he also possesses a surprising Achilles heel. He’s loyal to a fault and demands the same—a noble weakness that doesn’t always pay dividends. Nelson captures all the nuances of his complex character, which adds significantly to the building fear that drives the plot.
As Paul’s counterpart, Tom Duffy, Alan Wade is sly, clever, and perfectly nuanced as a long-time operative who knows how to press all the right buttons. He’s a campaign warrior, a political ju-jitsu artist who rarely breaks a sweat as he uses his opponents’ own moves against them. He’s the kind of really bad guy you feel free to hate, while, at the same time, grudgingly admiring the sheer, cynical brilliance of his game.
Susan Lynskey is spot-on in her portrayal of Ida Horowicz, portraying her as the prototypical reporter-predator who’s your best buddy today and your worst nightmare tomorrow. Lynskey also gets the irony of her role, deftly demonstrating that hardball politics and hardball reporting are merely two sides of the same dirty coin.
Although her role is relatively small, Elisabeth Ness adds a delicious element of scandal to the proceedings in her portrayal of Molly the Intern. Willowy and youthful, Ness is marvelously typecast in this role and plays it to the hilt, somehow pouring bouncy innocence and sexual predation into the blender to create a power crazed faux-innocent post-feminist that might make even Gloria Steinem blush. She’s cornered in the end by her own lack of morality. But somehow, you figure, Ness’ young Molly will probably end up with her own syndicated gossip column in a month or two.
Of the play’s political innocents, Kevin Hasser’s Ben is the most interesting. Eager and clearly more competent than he seems, he’s endlessly and gratuitously shouldered aside by the power-tripping Stephen. But he becomes more dignified as the play progresses, physically recalling, in looks and in manner, the endearing, almost bashful demeanor of a young Christopher Reeve in his original portrayal of Superman. And yet we are left wondering—will the campaign eventually transform him into another Stephen Bellamy?
The only character that doesn’t quite work here is the waiter. That’s no fault of Timothy Andres Pabon, whose portrayal is innocent, honest, and down-to-earth. Yet the waiter’s small “big scene,” in which he pours out his family’s troubled yet noble past to an indifferent Stephen seems a little tacked on, as if the playwright felt he needed a device or a foil of down-home plain-spokenness to balance out his play’s general lack of moral compass.
Aside from a funny though somewhat gratuitous swipe at Republicans casually delivered by Alan Wade’s Tom Duffy, Farragut North, penned as it is by a longtime Democratic party operative, is surprisingly nonpartisan in tone. Indeed, since all the play’s characters are Democrats or Democratic sympathizers, it’s his own political affiliation that, by default, gets the bulk of the rough treatment.
Yet you walk away from this intriguing, riveting play with a sense that both parties—perhaps even the entire political system as currently constituted—is guilty of an overweening sense of privilege drawn from a sheer, overwhelming lust for power at all costs. These are people who have created a system where they absolutely must win in order to continue to play. Clearly they have no alternative life on deck if they or their candidate should lose.
Farragut North portrays a democratic system that’s gone off the rails. Once intended as a one or two-term thing after which each elected representative would go back to tending the family farm, national politics has evolved into a highly lucrative, lifetime game for elites who’ve grown further and further distant from their constituencies. Willimon offers us his take on contemporary political alienation. It’s a chilling one and it’s well worth seeing in this current, taut, kinetic, and fast-paced production.
by Beau Willimon
Directed by Clay Hopper
Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running Time: 2 hours including one intermission
- Patrick Folliard . Washington Blade
- Larry Bangs . Montgomery Gazette
- Steve Charing . BaltimoreOutLoud
- Adrienne Lawrence . Frederick News Post
- Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Patrick Gavin . Politico