As of last week, New York’s mostly liberal-leaning theatergoers have found themselves with the unaccustomed prospect of having a national leader they can believe in. So it’s easy to imagine Beau Willimon must have experienced a moment of anxiety, wondering was it suddenly out-of-sync with the prevailing mood to premiere a play steeped in political disenchantment. He needn’t have worried. Even for those of us who overdosed in recent weeks on a compulsive diet of MSNBC and CNN, and who may now be cautiously ready to renew our faith in the system, “Farragut North” is juicy entertainment.
This whip-smart insider look at the soul-sucking world of political campaigns has had a twisty path to production. Originally slated for Off Broadway’s Second Stage, it then appeared headed for Broadway when Mike Nichols became interested in directing, with Jake Gyllenhaal rumored for the lead role of a hotshot press secretary gearing up for the Iowa presidential caucuses in a close Democratic primary race. (While plans for the New York premiere were still solidifying, Warner Bros. acquired film rights, with George Clooney aboard to direct and Leonardo DiCaprio positioned to star.)
Somewhere along the line, Nichols withdrew and the stage project resurfaced at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company. Directed by Doug Hughes with bristling intelligence and designed by David Korins on a cleverly mutable set of shadowy Democratic blue, the production may have downgraded its marquee muscle but it’s in no way shortchanged by John Gallagher Jr. as 25-year-old spinmeister Stephen Bellamy.
Gallagher has made his mark playing sensitive, awkwardly vulnerable types onstage in “Rabbit Hole,” “Spring Awakening” and the Atlantic’s exquisite staging of Conor McPherson’s “Port Authority.” So it’s disconcerting to see him eagerly up to his elbows in such a nasty business.
“I’m not a good person,” confesses Stephen, and there’s no reason to doubt him. But even if it’s hidden deep down beneath a thick skin of hubris and cynical calculation, Gallagher never completely loses sight of the starry-eyed rural kid who got into politics 10 years ago because he wanted to make a difference. It’s that glimpse of defiled idealism that gives the play its somber heart.
Willimon’s firsthand experience on the campaign trail — interning during Charles E. Schumer’s successful Senate run and as a junior staffer for Howard Dean in the 2004 primaries — no doubt helped the playwright breathe credibility into his key players.
With their presidential candidate, Gov. Morris, ahead in the polls and about to secure a decisive endorsement, Stephen and vet campaign manager Paul Zara (Chris Noth) are bullish on their chances of going all the way to the White House. But when Stephen takes a secret meeting with rival campaign chief Tom Duffy (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who attempts to persuade him to switch teams by revealing that the polls have been loaded, Stephen’s momentary breach of loyalty spells his downfall.
Punctuating each scene with cable news-style graphics and witty minimalist touches from Korins to define the various settings, Hughes whips the action along without a moment’s lull. As he showed in “Doubt,” the director knows how to keep a tightly scripted, performance-driven play lean and efficient.
Echoing behind-the-scenes political drama from “The Best Man” to “The West Wing” to “Primary Colors,” the play’s nine taut scenes crackle with pithy talk, gripping plot turns and intriguing revelations. But it’s the well-seasoned characterizations that really bring the story to life. At first, Willimon tricks us into thinking everyone here is as ruthless as the next guy. But there are subtle distinctions.
Noth’s cool authority reveals no trace of the actor’s absence from New York stages for six years as he channels relaxed humor to warm the steely edges of a tough pragmatist. Whitlock is smooth as silk, laying a trap that will serve him politically whichever way Stephen responds and refusing to be chastened for his methods: “I’ve seen way too many Democrats bite the dust because they wouldn’t get down in the mud with the elephants,” Whitlock’s Tom says.
Much of the play’s suspense hinges on the question of who leaked word of Stephen’s meeting with Tom to a pushy New York Times reporter (Kate Blumberg). Among the possible suspects, Willimon throws in Molly (Olivia Thirlby), a bright young intern with the Morris campaign who sleeps with Stephen; and fresh-faced Ben (Dan Bittner), the seemingly benign deputy press secretary eyed by Stephen as an ambitious threat.
At the center of all this, Gallagher bounces from brash overconfidence to cold-sweat discomfort and, finally, to desperate bids for self-preservation and revenge. It’s no stretch to believe this wunderkind, “the best media mind in the country,” can charm the vulture-like press even while playing them. And it’s fun to watch the wheels of his strategist’s mind turning even after defeat as he weighs the political usefulness of a waiter’s hard-luck story (Otto Sanchez, doubling as a Los Angeles Times reporter).
The title refers to the D.C. Metro station where jaded campaign vets trudge off every morning to political consulting jobs. With his relationships in tatters and his humanity all but erased, Stephen is faced with the realization that his future may not be that of a power player but, as Tom puts it, “a stone-hearted hack.”
The play closes with a classic press conference signoff, “I won’t be taking questions,” which here conveys a whole shady history of backroom wheeling and dealing behind those five simple words.