'Farragut,' a Fresh Take On Old Political Tricks

From left, Dan Bittner, John Gallagher Jr., Chris Noth and Kate Blumberg in Beau Willimon's spicy political dramedy.
From left, Dan Bittner, John Gallagher Jr., Chris Noth and Kate Blumberg in Beau Willimon's spicy political dramedy. (By Jacqueline Mia Foster -- Atlantic Theater Company Via Bloomberg News)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NEW YORK -- If "The West Wing" offered up politics as an inspirational highway to hope, Beau Willimon's spicy, new campaign stage dramedy, "Farragut North," returns us to those comforting, cutthroat side streets.

We're in Iowa -- set your clock back to January! -- for the presidential caucuses, where some Democrat or other is about to be anointed. But more important, it is where roving bands of reporters and political operatives practice the ancient art of backstabbing.

For sure, you've seen variations on this portrait of cravenness and calculation before. The good news is that Willimon -- whose bio lists staff positions with New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton and former Vermont governor Howard Dean -- writes freshly about ravenous political appetites. In Doug Hughes's muscular staging for off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company, the playwright shows that he's attuned to the circuitry of political careerists, to the ego-stroking access they seek and the particular ways they seek it.

When, for instance, the hotshot young press secretary -- played smashingly by John Gallagher Jr. of "Spring Awakening" fame -- describes the place he came from 50 miles south of Washington as a town where "half the folks didn't even know the word Congress has two S's in it," you get a refined sense of paradox. Here's a wide-eyed cynic who is both eager to be of service and contemptuous of the people he'd have to serve.

Apart from one wildly improbable plot point -- could a campaign really manage secretly to mobilize its supporters en masse to disguise their intentions when poll-takers call? -- "Farragut North" riffs authoritatively on the pressures and fissures of the big time. It reminds you of the timeless appeal of stories about the process. The theme is, reap what you spin: Gallagher's arm-twisting Stephen sits at the center of a morality tale about the business of using the flaws of others against them, while being blind to your own.

A wunderkind who at 25 has worked his way up through several election cycles, Stephen is at the same time magnetic and appalling: He's great at the not-so-great things that politics demands. In the very first scene, set in a Des Moines watering hole, he tells a flattering story on himself, about how in a previous race, he sold a reporter on a questionably relevant story that accuses an opposition candidate of using a fairly minor ethnic insult. That the reporter, played by Kate Blumberg, is seated at the table -- listening to Stephen characterize how she was, in a sense, gamed -- gets at the cozy pragmatism of these relationships. Alliances are sustained on a mutual, need-to-use basis.

Like other aspects of "Farragut North," Stephen's anecdote seems loosely based on a real event, this one apparently modeled on a gaffe by then-Sen. Alfonse D'Amato in his 1998 race against Schumer. For instance, the insurgent's campaign manager, played by Chris Noth, appears at least partly inspired by Joe Trippi, who served in that role for Dean and for whom Willimon also worked. (The candidate employing Stephen, as well as Noth's Paul Zara is referred to as "Governor Morris," but we actually hear very little about the presidential contenders themselves.)

The play allows you to share Stephen's confidences without making you feel as if you should have boned up on the Almanac of American Politics. The title itself is an insiders' reference point: Washington knows it as prominent Metro stop. Willimon adds a bitter connotation. In a meeting with the plot's uber-cynic, a tough official of a rival campaign suavely played by Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen learns of its meaning as a literal stop on the downside of a political career.

That downward slope is where Stephen finds himself precariously perched after he makes one fateful misstep in the days leading up to the caucuses. One of the cooler facets of "Farragut North" is how deftly it unfolds the ramifications of Stephen's action, and how the other shrewd characters digest and take advantage of it.

Noth is well cast as a veteran campaign aide who's steelier than his coarse and slovenly demeanor suggest. Olivia Thirlby, whom audiences might recognize as the teenage confidante to Ellen Page's Juno in the successful movie of that title, here plays a sexually uninhibited intern who becomes Stephen's romantic interest; she brings a refreshing naturalness to the part.

Although Willimon succumbs in the end to a rather melodramatic impulse -- it's hard to credit that the seasoned Stephen would ultimately decide on the kind of shortsighted act outlined here -- "Farragut North" is carried convincingly on Gallagher's shoulders. His eyes blaze with that zeal that ignites in the firebrands of every campaign. Change might be the political message of the moment, but when it comes to the ambitions of those around the war room, some things never do.

Farragut North, by Beau Willimon. Directed by Doug Hughes. Sets, David Korins; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Paul Gallo; sound, Walter Trarbach and David van Tieghem. With Otto Sanchez, Dan Bittner. About two hours. Through Nov. 29 at Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St., New York. Call 212-279-4200 or visit

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