Going for the Political Jugular

Farragut-North-posterThe primary and election season seemed to go on forever. But at last we have a newly chosen president, which makes me wonder just how relevant the satirical drama Farragut North will prove. Beau Willimon’s quite humorous yet dark new play opened November 12 in an Atlantic Theatre Company production, directed by Doug Hughes. It takes place during several crucial days in a presidential primary campaign, the year being 2008, as the two leading Democratic candidates at the Iowa caucuses are battling for victory. A former political operative himself, Willimon is fascinated with the behind-the-scenes battles, strategies, and betrayals of those who run the campaign: not the candidates (whom we never see on stage) but the professional spin-masters. Their commitment to the process -- the game -- is like pit bulls at a dog fight. It’s an adrenalin rush.

At the hectic heart of this play stands Stephen, the 25-year-old hot-shot press secretary for the liberal, charismatic Morris (probably based on Howard Dean, for whom Willimon worked in 2004, but with touches of Obama rhetoric). In the opening scene Stephen is so brimming with enthusiasm and drive, it’s as if he is high on the political process. Totally wired, he sits telling war stories of prior campaigns. The intimate group gathered over drinks in an anonymous restaurant includes the campaign manager, Paul, a political reporter, Ida, and an underling, Ben.

They are all full of themselves, their loud voices overlapping as each tries to top the others with amazing tales of the campaign trail. Paul, as the oldest of the group, wields his clout with charm, energy, and even self-deprecation, but manages to make sure they all know that he is the boss. Ida is writing a profile on Paul -- warts and all -- and she offers him a ride to the airport, where he is off to a secret destination to clinch a candidate endorsement with some powerful figure. Paul has already set up the art of the leak, via Stephen, so that Ida thinks she’s in the know in ways that she is not supposed to be. And this is just the first scene. The play moves at a lively pace, with one political trick after another, much of it having to do with who has what secret information on whom. It’s all about power, leverage, leaks, spin, and bartering.

And of course the action also includes betrayals -- personal, political, and sexual. Nothing like power to get the sexual juices flowing. Very pretty young intern Molly manages to land in the beds of both Stephen and Paul. She’s 19 and eager, not so cunning as she thinks, but with her own version of Monica’s presidential knee-pads.

What Willimon does very well is witty speech and moral dilemmas. Actually, perhaps, the dilemmas are not so much moral as careerist. The pace is break-neck and the moments of truth actually seem truthful. Stephen manipulates Molly to reveal her secret romp with Paul, in all its sordid details, so that he can use this information to forward his career. Stephen has no moral qualms. He calmly asserts late in the play, “Fine, I’m a monster.” It’s all about being in the game, and if he has to be a spoiler for someone else’s career, so be it.

But then what is the point of this play? To reveal to us just how crass political operatives can be? Surely that’s no surprise. Politics in America has over many years proven a pretty filthy game. Just when we think one side or candidate can sink no further, we are proven wrong. We’ve been living for the last eight years with the team that gave us the big lie. We have been lied to so often and so egregiously that if there is an innocent American left, he must be a hermit.

It’s possibly the wrong moment for this play. We are basking right now in the all-too-rare politics of hope. This production of Farragut North is slick and effective. The directing is strong. The set is crisp and evocative. The acting is brilliant, particularly that of Chris Noth as Paul, John Gallagher, Jr. as Stephen, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. as the other candidate’s campaign manager. In fact, every actor here is really fine. Even the bedspread in the hotel room where the operatives are staying is perfect. (I think I had the same one at the Ramada Inn in Wilkes-Barre, PA when I was there canvassing for Obama.)

Only the timing of this production is off. It would have been gripping last spring while we were engaged in the process of the primaries. Now, I suspect, most theatergoers would rather not know just how deeply power-hungry and corrupt are those in the inner circle surrounding a presidential candidate. We’d rather believe that change is coming, and that some new dawn -- after the long nightmare of abuse -- is on the horizon. - Victoria Sullivan

The Atlantic Theatre Company’s Farragut North is playing at the Linda Gross Theatre, 326 W. 20th St., NY NY through 11/29/08. Tue-Fri at 8, Sat at 2 & 8, Sun at 3 & 7.

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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