nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 15, 2008
Beau Willimon's new play Farragut North is a gripping, suspenseful drama set in the world of presidential politics. It has the makings of a good movie (and is indeed being adapted as a screenplay by the author); it's the kind of not-entirely plausible but compellingly watchable drama that used to be a staple of the Broadway stage (though has not been for a few decades). Willimon has talent, and his script benefits from canny directing by Doug Hughes, a contemporary high-tech-ish design by David Korins, Paul Gallo, and Joshua White, an appealing leading man (John Gallagher, Jr.), and especially a pair of terrific supporting performances by vets Chris Noth and Isiah Whitlock, Jr.
The story unfolds in Iowa, in the days before the first presidential caucus of a competitive election year. (The script gives the year as 2008, but this is entirely a work of fiction, and any resemblance between the campaign illustrated here and the one we just lived through is completely incidental.) Two Democrats are fighting for victory here; we never meet either candidate, but view the events of the campaign entirely through the eyes of their staffs. Our hero is Stephen, the boy genius press secretary of one of the Dems; when we meet him, he's commanding a table whose other occupants are his boss, Paul, and a leading political reporter from The New York Times. But Stephen gets derailed by an unexpected phone call from Tom, manager of the opposing camp, who offers him a position inside that campaign—backed up by juicy details meant to plant more than just a seed of doubt in Stephen's brain.
The plot machinations are pretty neat, especially since Hughes's quick pacing doesn't allow us much time to think about how likely they actually are; they involve possible betrayals within Stephen and Paul's ranks, and hinge heavily on a young intern named Molly who may or may not be trustworthy. In Act Two, Willimon really turns up the heat, and shifts gears subtly from a conventional behind-the-scenes political thriller to a study of the hyper-Type-A-win-at-all-costs personality of Stephen; once the focus turns squarely to Stephen, the play's stakes increase (though Willimon risks neutralizing some of this potency with an unnecessary coda that tries to make the story feel topical again).
Gallagher makes Stephen an extremely likable central figure, loaded with charisma and well-served by boyish good looks and insouciance, but he pushes too hard here, and the climactic scene suffers from him going too far over the top. But Noth and Whitlock as the warring campaign managers are pretty much perfection in their roles, and Willimon deals each a superlative scene wherein he can strut his considerable stuff. (Whitlock's final parry with Stephen is certainly the snappiest moment in the play.) Dan Bittner, Kate Blumberg, and Olivia Thirlby are more or less saddled with archetypal parts (respectively, an Eve Harington-esque youngster waiting in the wings for a big break, a tough-as-nails newspaperwoman, and a precocious teenager who uses sex for personal advantage despite the fact that doing so sets the feminist movement back a decade or two); they're victims of the formula Willimon is trading in. Otto Sanchez plays two roles, one of which is interesting (a waiter at the Iowa dive where Tom courts Stephen).
Atlantic Theater Company has timed Farragut North's run to coincide with the period following our own real-life 2008 presidential election, which may not be fortuitous. I know that when the lights went down and the opening images of the play—projections of campaign events and TV journalists covering them—flashed on the rear wall of the stage, my immediate thought was: haven't we had enough of this already? In fact, Willimon's protagonist could ultimately just as well be a lawyer or a movie executive or a dotcom entrepreneur; the milieu of the political campaign, now that Yes We Can has at last morphed into Yes We Did, feels oddly out of date even a couple of weeks after the election.