By the time the primaries have been decided, the two final Presidential candidates are carefully coiffed, exhibit controlled demeanor and deliver polished speeches, but the months leading up to the run-up to the election are messy, chaotic periods with the most interesting events going on behind the scenes, unbeknownst to the public. The management of a putative 2008 primary in Iowa (based on Gov. Howard Dean's 2004 campaign) is the basis for Beau Willimon's political drama, Farragut North, now receiving its New Jersey premiere in a riveting production by Premiere Stages at Kean University. (Above: Philip Mills as Stephen Bellamy and Cara Ganski as Molly; photo by Roy Groething)
The air of the intimate Zella Fry Theatre fairly crackled with snappy dialogue convincingly delivered by seven very talented actors under the fine directorial hand of Michael Barakiva. Even the coarse language uttered by most of the characters feels natural; profanity for emphasis probably plays a major role in most of the communication among people driven by competition to come out on top in the Iowa caucuses, the first primaries in the nation. A victory there will go a long way to propel the winner along the path to the general election.
Farragut North involves the machinations of Steve Bellamy, press secretary to Mike Morris, one of four candidates seeking the Presidential nomination (“Change Starts Now”—sound familiar?). Steve's hubris conflicts with his loyalty when he meets secretly with Tom Duffy, campaign manager of a rival hopeful, a meeting that results in a job offer, which he refuses. His failure to tell Morris campaign manager Paul Zara about the meeting, however, gets him in hot water and leads to dire occupational consequences. Add a one-night stand with Molly, a 19-year-old intern on the prowl, and a falling out with New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz, to whom he's been leaking stuff he hopes will make the front page of the paper, and you get denouement that deliciously delivers a fine—and well-deserved—comeuppance to a young twenty-something clearly too big for his britches.
These intrigues unfold on a beautiful set designed by Joseph Gourley. Sliding panels reveal a motel lounge, motel room, an out-of-the-way dive and campaign headquarters. The disjointed geometrical shapes painted on the panels echo the chaos of behind-the-scenes maneuvers inimical to this primary campaign yet convey the kitsch of a Midwestern motel.
The stellar cast includes Philip Mills, whose portrayal of Steve Bellamy reeks of the arrogance of a young man full of himself, which makes his retribution warranted and poignant. As campaign director Paul Zara, Paul Bernardo is the epitome of unkempt distraction tempered by a streak of ruthlessness all the more powerful for its unexpectedness. Steven Hauck's Tom Duffy, he of the long face and well-tailored suit, contrasts with Zara's dishevelment, but is equally as coldblooded in dealing with a rueful Bellamy late in the play.
While the two women characters are separated by about two decades in age, both are single-minded about what they want and how to get it. Roya Shanks as Ida Horowicz is all business, one of the boys, in her dealings with the political operatives she hobnobs with in motel lounges. Cara Ganski's Molly may look like an innocent teenager, but she's a sexual predator who has a string of conquests under her belt. Both actresses hold their own with the profanity-laced dialogue uttered in an offhand manner so common to men; it never feels gratuitous. And Steven Carter as young go-fer Ben turns in a performance reminiscent of Jesse Eisenberg, adorable, puppy-dog-like, yet totally convincing at the end.
You're probably wondering why a play set in Iowa about Washington politics is called Farragut North. Well, it's the name of a metro station located in a part of the nation's capitol where a great many consulting firms have their headquarters. To an operative used to being on the political front lines, it's the equivalent of Siberia.
With The Best Man closing on Broadway this past Sunday, there is still room for a well-written political play, and Farragut North is just the theatrical ticket. You could have heard a pin drop at the performance I attended this weekend, that's how enthralling it was to watch this modern version of what could well be a Greek tragedy unfold, except that nobody dies at the end; they just get punished by the political gods. It's a jolly good—and very satisfying—tale of what happens when people exhibit a sense of overweening pride: It leadeth to a fall.
Farragut North will be performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 PM through September 23 at the Zella Fry Theatre on the campus of Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union. For information and tickets, call the box office at 908.737.7469 or visit www.kean.edu/premierestages .