Farragut North -- Theater Review

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In case you forgot, politics isn't for sissies. Beau Willimon's "Farragut North" reminds us of this lamentable fact, though the play doesn't tell us much we didn't already know about the dark side of backroom presidential campaigns. Still, the drama has an engaging cast and a good feel for the rough-and-tumble dialogue that comes with the territory. Willimon worked on Howard Dean's failed 2004 campaign for president, so it's not hard to imagine that he's writing partly from memory.

The play, set in Des Moines just before the Iowa caucuses, centers on the downfall of Stephan Bellamy (Chris Pine), a charmingly ambitious 25-year-old press secretary working for an idealistic candidate whom we never meet. Stephen is no angel when we meet him, but he's no devil either until he makes a few bad choices that blow up in his face and bring out the worst in everyone around him, especially himself.

One of the people he drags into his increasingly sticky personal drama is Paul Zara (Chris Noth), the pragmatic campaign manager he works for. Another is Molly (Olivia Thirlby), a seemingly innocent intern with ambition issues of her own. The press also comes in for its share of unmasking in the play, personified by Ida Horowicz (Mia Barron), a New York Times reporter who would sell her soul for a scoop.

Although the dialogue of hardball politics rings true enough, the spinning, dirty tricks, backstabbing, opportunism and casual cynicism on display feel familiar. We've seen it before in countless other plays, films and TV shows. Moreover, the central plot point on which everything else turns -- a supposed act of slippery-slope betrayal by Stephan -- isn't that convincing, nor is the twist that occurs later all that surprising. There's a certain amount of naivete lurking in the wings of the play that translates more easily into political soap opera than political insight.

It's Pines' play to run with, and run he does, charming his way into and out of trouble until he finally runs clear out of friends, excuses and scruples. Noth shows an unlaid-back side of himself we haven't seen much of lately, as excitable as he is unyielding once he makes up his mind. Thirlby lends a sly sexuality to idealistic Molly, who might not know the ropes but who seems to know the score.

Isiah Whitlock Jr. is suitably unctuous and devious as the opposing operative who tempts Stephen into political sin.

Doug Hughes, whose superb production of "Oleanna" is on display across town at the Taper, ramps up the tension once again for maximum effect.

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (Through July 26)
Cast: Chris Pine, Chris Noth, Olivia Thirlby, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mia Barron, Dan Bittner, Justin Huen.
Playwright: Beau Willimon
Director: Doug Hughes
Set designer: David Korins
Lighting designer: Paul Gallo
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Original music: David Van Tieghem
Video collages: Joshua White, Bec Stupa
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