If all politics is local, and all politics is personal, then every politician had better be particularly careful of the people closest to him. This rough syllogism is the jumping-off point for Beau Willimon’s “Farragut North,” a crackling good entertainment set in the snowy wilds of an Iowa Democratic presidential primary. Not incidentally, it offers a substantial role for Chris Pine, beaming down from “Star Trek” to demonstrate as much command on the Geffen Playhouse’s boards as he shows on the Enterprise’s bridge.
Pine, who scored in the Geffen staging of Neil LaBute’s “Fat Pig” back in 2007, amply possesses the requisite charisma, boyish charm and calculating intelligence of a political wunderkind. He plays Stephen Bellamy, only 25 and already a seasoned pro of 10 years’ standing. Communications director for unseen, come-from-behind candidate “Morris,” this master of cell-phone spin is on top of his world, the brass ring of White House entree tantalizingly within reach.
Yet a latenight meeting with the opposition’s campaign manager, Tom (an excellent, lazily feral Isiah Whitlock Jr.), reveals the naked truth: Thanks to a devilishly orchestrated set of dirty tricks, next week’s caucuses are already lost and Morris is doomed. (Willimon, himself a onetime activist, demonstrates a finely tuned ear for political poker stars’ bluffing and maneuvering, in which we the people are the high stakes.)
Mulling over Tom’s proffered lifeline — jump ship; join us now — Pine persuasively conveys a smooth operator’s compounding confusion as he wrestles for the first time with ethical dilemmas, the spinmeister himself being spun. This guy — just a lad at heart, as Pine plays him — achingly juggles loyalty to boss Paul (Chris Noth, rumpled and truly fearsome), personal ambition and the realization of his fundamental aloneness amidst the world’s most populated profession.
Helmer Doug Hughes evidences the same mastery of subtle one-on-one scene dynamics as in his simultaneously running “Oleanna” at the Taper; both productions reveal his peerless sense of casual conversation masking weightier matters, the light remark suddenly escalating into deadly challenge.
Though Willimon’s characters are essentially types, Hughes steers the exceptional cast toward specificity, from the veteran horse traders (Noth, Whitlock and Mia Barron’s feisty New York Times reporter) to the representatives of callow youth: Olivia Thirlby, remarkably affecting as a teenage intern with know-how beyond her years, and Dan Bittner, a buttoned-down assistant with a touch of Eve Harrington.
In an impressive 11th-hour stroke, Willimon trots out a Morris supporter, an immigrant waiter (Justin Huen), to remind us what’s really at stake in a contest such as this one. As the self-absorbed, strategizing Stephen fails to take in the man’s tale of woe, we’re reminded of the frustrating gap between smart politics and good governance, never the twain to meet.
Design elements imported from the play’s Atlantic Theater Company Gotham premiere contribute to the pervasively professional air. Joshua White and Bec Stupak’s video collages deftly remind us of the outside world during scene transitions, even if neither David Korins’ sets, Paul Gallo’s lighting nor the thesps come close to capturing a Midwestern winter’s chill.
“Farragut North,” reportedly in development as a Leonardo DiCaprio starrer under George Clooney’s direction, isn’t a great play: Its wheels can too readily be seen clicking and, in act two, they sometimes spin in place. But not since “The Best Man,” and before that “State of the Union,” has the theater enjoyed such a heady thriller on presidential politicking.