Monday, January 4, 2010

Theater review: Smart, crisp 'Farragut North' at GableStage

Nick Duckart and Betsy Graver in Farragut North.
(Photo by George Schiavone)



By Hap Erstein

Anyone who has heard artistic director Joe Adler’s impassioned, rambling introductory remarks at GableStage knows he cannot repress his views on politics. So he understandably could not resist bringing Beau Willimon’s backroom, back-stabbing campaign morality play, Farragut North, to his audience.

First seen off-Broadway in late 2008, just after the presidential election, the crisply written, twisty tale offers the less-than-original news that politics is a dirty business. But at least it does so with smart dialogue and an involving pace that brings to mind Aaron Sorkin and the heyday of TV’s The West Wing.

Make that a West Wing flashback episode, for Farragut North is set in Des Moines on the eve of the Iowa presidential caucuses. At the play’s center is a hot-shot, ambitious and rising press secretary, Stephen Bellamy (Nick Duckart), only 25 years old, yet with a decade of campaign experience. Unseen is his candidate, a Democratic governor named Morris, for this is about the staffers and interns who toil long hours in bitter winter conditions, believing in their cause but wrestling with the realities that chip away their idealism.

Willimon worked on Howard Dean’s aborted 2004 run for the White House and it is plausible that some of the play is a fictionalized version of those primary skirmishes. Under Adler’s taut direction of a razor-sharp cast, the evening has an air of authenticity, even when the plot occasionally grows far-fetched.

Bellamy’s trial by fire transpires over nine scenes, beginning with a boozy bull session in a hotel bar populated by his canny-but-cranky campaign manager boss, Paul Zara (Gregg Weiner), Bellamy’s eager-beaver aide and younger version of himself, Ben (David Hemphill), and a hardball, situation-ethical New York Times reporter, Ida Horowicz (Deborah Sherman). Arriving briefly is a dewy-eyed intern named Molly (Betsy Graver), who vacillates between naïveté and cunning, not unlike the secretary in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow.

Confident of an Iowa victory that will make Morris the acknowledged front-runner, Bellamy agrees to meet with the rival camp’s campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Robert Strain), expecting to gloat. Instead he learns that Morris’s poll lead is an illusion engineered by the enemy camp, which offers him a lifeline if he will change allegiances. What the usually savvy Bellamy does not understand is that the meeting is a trap that is sprung regardless of his answer. In the nasty world of politics, the most valued commodity is loyalty.

Willimon knows playwriting and he pens nimble dialogue, even if Farragut North -- the name of a Washington, D.C., Metro stop near the K Street corridor of lobbyist offices -- feels a bit too familiar. You would not have to be a political junkie to be way ahead of a couple of key plot points: Who leaked the news of Bellamy’s covert meeting and who will rise while other careers go into free fall.

Still, the GableStage production is never less than entertaining, largely because of the crafty cast. Duckart, who emerged last year in the Caldwell’s Whipping Man and Mosaic’s Why Torture Is Wrong, gives his best performance yet as Bellamy, oozing charisma and easy-to-identify-with fallibility. The always enjoyable Weiner devours the role of sage, hot-tempered Paul and Sherman brings a valuable ease to the small, but pivotal role of the reporter.

Adler has a good eye for fledgling talent and he has another discovery in Graver, who becomes more dimensional as the character of intern Molly evolves in complexity. And keep an eye on Hemphill, who makes a lot of a character that spends most of his time listening.

Sean McClelland works his usual magic, devising seven distinct locales on GableStage’s wide, narrow playing space. The rest of the design elements are also first-rate. Farragut North is not a great play, but you would never know that from the terrific production it is receiving in Coral Gables.

FARRAGUT NORTH. GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Continuing through Jan. 24. Tickets: $37.50-$45. Call: (305) 445-1119.

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