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Farragut North

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

John Gallagher, Jr. and Chris Noth.
Photo by Jacqueline Mia Foster.

Can a political strategist be so talented he strategizes himself into oblivion? How you respond to this question will very much determine how you respond to Beau Willimon's play Farragut North, which just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company.

If you say the answer is yes, then you'll have no trouble accepting that 25-year-old Stephen Bellamy, the press secretary for the skyrocketing presidential campaign of Governor Morris, could ruin his life and several others' in a single swoop. You might feel that someone used to being the sharpest and most connected person in every room can indeed buy into his own hype and be destroyed by a one-time, one-second lapse in judgment. And if you do, then getting carried away on the show's roiling waves of intrigue is not difficult.

On the other hand, if you think any wunderkind crackerjack enough to rise so far so fast would never sabotage himself so carelessly... well, then this play - despite all its shadowy tension and sexual one-upmanship, chessmen-style maneuvering, and intensely chest-thumping direction by Doug Hughes - will not be your glass of Long Island Iced Tea.

Frankly, it wasn't mine - precisely because it's so unconvincing that this sublimely smart young man could ever be as supremely stupid as Stephen must be for the plot to cohere. Willing suspension of disbelief is one thing, but willing suspension of sanity is something else entirely, and that's too hefty a demand for Willimon to make in a work positioning itself as this real and this cynical.

True, key moments in both real and theatrical history have turned on such tiny incidents. You can pinpoint when a Willy Loman or an Oedipus passes the point of no return, and everyone remembers when 2004 Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean (on whose campaign Willimon worked, and loosely based Farragut North) sank many of his own ambitions with that now-infamous scream. But in every example worth mentioning, some juicy mitigating factor identifies its perpetrator as something beyond normal: hubris, usually, or sometimes a self-imposed blindness to a rapidly evolving world.

John Gallagher, Jr. and Olivia Thirlby.
Photo by Jacqueline Mia Foster.

For Stephen (John Gallagher, Jr.), who in the week before the Iowa Caucus schedules a covert meeting with an opponent's campaign manager (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), it's... what? That he's tired? Overworked? Or worst of all, just curious? These options are not the pungent possibilities necessary to make you believe this iron-willed go-getter would compromise a candidate he so strongly supports and risk life as a washed-up lobbyist (not yet 30) working off the titular Metro stop, let alone betray his friend and colleague Paul (Chris Noth), the governor's campaign manager; allow his brash press assistant, Ben (Dan Bittner), an opening to promote his own burgeoning gifts; or arouse the interest and ire of the New York Times reporter, Ida (Kate Blumberg), who's trailing everyone en route to Super Tuesday.

Yet that's exactly what happens. And once it happens, in the first scene, any implausibility you're predisposed to quickly dissolves Willimon's credibility as a sensible storyteller. In case you don't think this stretches credibility, Willimon tests your tolerance still further with the 19-year-old Molly (Olivia Thirlby), an improbably slutty Morris intern who claims to have only ever slept with older men, and apparently quite a few of them, including several key members of the campaign; and a salt-of-the-earth waiter (Otto Sanchez) on hand to sell the country-spanning importance of a Morris win.

The rampant opportunism of every character and the primordial black-and-white of the presiding partisanship (Whitlock delivers the expected speech explaining that, however bad the Democrats may seem, they remain far more honorable than the competition) makes Farragut North greasy rather than gritty, and compelling as neither a cautionary tale nor an indictment of back-room politicking. Overall, it feels like a by-the-numbers liberal-Hollywood thriller being rewritten during shooting to be more acceptably scathing; since a film version is apparently already slated for next year (with George Clooney reportedly attached), perhaps this isn't surprising.

The casting, however, represents pure theatre logic. Hot young Tony winner (for Spring Awakening) Gallagher, who is in every way wrong for Stephen: off-handed and apologetic, whether bedding Molly or skewering half the Morris campaign, and evincing none of the go-for-broke control Stephen must effortlessly command. Noth, the established pro and semi-name, in a role that veers between reactionary and thankless, and whose hardcore-thug portrayal is often at odds with the cagey loyalist he's playing. The bland Blumberg, who can't reconcile Ida's conflicting desires to report and make the news, the only thing her character requires.

Whitlock, though, finds the proper balance of charm and smarm as a backhanded game-changer, and makes the most of his paucity of stage time. And though Molly herself is pure dramatic overkill, Thirlby gives her a likeable, thoughtful spin that at least makes her a palatable part of Willimon's bitter world.

The most interesting thing about that world is that it's already a thing of the past. Last week's Democratic victories in the executive and legislative branches saw to that, and likewise ensured that this play - which derives much of its velocity from the infighting inherent in an implicitly lost-cause race - would be dated before it premiered. But even if the elections had gone a different way, Farragut North's leaps of fantasy would have left relevancy stranded in the dust with Bob Barr and Cynthia McKinney.

Farragut North
Through November 29
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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