“Farragut North” is the kind of bluntly current political drama that Washington’s inside-the-Beltway theaters don’t much like. Dramaturgically, there’s nothing very edgy about it: Beau Willimon’s 2008 play is a straightforward campaign-trail potboiler, drawn in part from his insider’s view as one of Howard Dean’s aides in 2004.
Political crossfire is fine with the Olney Theatre Center, though, which has built a laudable track record of picking up topical material that downtown theaters barely sniff at (the post-9/11 dinner party fantasia “Omnium Gatherum,” the Iraq War walkup “Stuff Happens”). Director Clay Hopper is making the most of the juicy back-stabbing in Willimon’s joyfully profane and malicious play, which is soon to be an appealingly star-studded George Clooney picture. Hopper’s production has verve and energy, and every actor is razor sharp.
The show is a tale of dirty tricks mainly involving Stephen Bellamy, a whiz-kid press secretary on a can’t-miss presidential campaign. Willimon opens with Bellamy at the center of a chummy drinking circle (the scene is Iowa) that includes not only his campaign-manager boss but also a sexy New York Times reporter covering the group.
Friends or enemies? Depends on the situation, and Hopper’s cast is first-rate with the casual trust and open suspicion that govern these inevitably manipulative relationships. As Paul Zara, the sage campaign manager, Bruce Nelson is magnetic underneath a grubby baseball-style campaign cap, as his character coolly analyzes all the breezy byplay and creates a minor sideshow with tales of his digestive system. As the Times writer, Susan Lynskey is a snappy distillation of the image of political reporting: knowing, seductive and dangerous.
The plot thickens when a rival campaign manager summons Bellamy for a secret meeting, and Alan Wade, shrewdly underplaying the part, makes this Prince of Darkness character seem about as sinister as a pork chop. Danny Yoerges, meanwhile, grows increasingly popeyed as Bellamy, who gradually learns what hardball politics is really about.
The production, taking its cue from the aggressive jungle drums on GW Rodriguez’s sound design, zips along in the snug Mulitz- Gudelsky Theatre Lab. Hopper strips the room pretty bare, with Nick Houfek’s grid of lights hanging over the stage as though it’s a TV studio (or a boxing ring). Cristina Todesco’s set features sliding panels that the actors reconfigure during the brisk scene changes — and what are those stains on the back walls? Why, leaks, of course.
Ivania Stack’s costumes are on the mark, from Bellamy’s camera-ready suit to the tight jeans worn by the hot young intern (there has to be one, and Elisabeth Ness is appealingly frank and vulnerable in the role). Well designed as it is, “Farragut North” rides on the actors, and it barrels smoothly down the tracks. Even the role of a plaintive waiter, offering a brief, rare outside voice amid all the inside-baseball chatter, is nailed by Timothy Andres Pabon. Slick stuff all around.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by Beau Willimon. Directed by Clay Hopper. With Kevin Hasser. About two hours. Through May 29 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.