“Farragut North” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

I’m a sucker for TV dramas which revolve around American presidential politics. The West Wing, Scandal, Madam Secretary, Designated Survivor – all favorites of mine. Hell, I even liked Commander in Chief, which barely eked out a season. I haven’t yet made it to House of Cards (I don’t have Netflix boo hoo), but that’s okay, because the man in charge of House of Cards, Beau Willimon, is the playwright behind Farragut North, a drama revolving around American presidential politics now playing at the Odyssey Theatre.

The story: brash wunderkind Stephen Bellamy (Jack Tynan) is the press secretary to a governor battling his way through the primaries on a quest for his party’s presidential nomination. At age twenty-five, Stephen’s a veteran of several campaigns, and everyone seems to acknowledge he’s the best – and he won’t disagree with you.

L-R Adam Faison, Jennifer Cannon, Jack Tynan, Geoffrey Lower. Photo: Ed Krieger

Stephen is in Des Moines prior to the Iowa caucuses, having drinks with the governor’s tough and grizzled campaign manager Paul Zara (Geoffrey Lower), and Ben Fowles (Adam Faison), Stephen’s assistant, even younger than his boss, an acolyte who hangs on every word his idol utters. Many of those words are directed toward Ida Horowicz (Jennifer Cannon), a New York Times reporter, as tough and grizzled as anyone, and determined to get her byline on the front page of the paper as often as she can. Tensions are high as the caucuses near, but hey, this is presidential politics, so while everyone might complain about the stress, they all thrive on it – it’s the big time!

Jack Tynan, Margaret Fegan. Photo: Ed Krieger

After Ida offers to drive Paul to the airport, Molly (Margaret Fegan), a pretty young intern for the campaign, hand-delivers an envelope to Stephen and flirtatiously makes a date with him for drinks later that night. But first, Stephen decides to keep another date: a secret meeting at an out-of-the-way restaurant with Tom Duffy (Andy Umberger), a rival campaign manager. As a waiter (Francisco J. Rodriguez) brings them drinks, Duffy asks Stephen to join him, titillating him with the revelation that the governor’s campaign has been sabotaged and Stephen is headed for ignominious defeat.

Though Stephen turns down the offer, he doesn’t report the meeting to Paul until the next morning, which turns out to be a fatal mistake. As the day spirals out of control, tempers flare, betrayals happen, secrets are leaked, stories get published, and before you can say “Paul Manafort” the governor’s campaign – and a couple of lives – are turned upside down.

L-R Jack Tynan, Adam Faison, Geoffrey Lower. Photo: Ed Krieger

The play is heavy on plot, and the heaviness starts right away. The first scene is talky and a bit flat, but things pick up in the second scene, as Mr. Umberger’s smoothly sinister Duffy poses a conundrum for Stephen. From then on, the plot thickens – literally – with twists and turns and betrayals which are sometimes more obvious to the audience than to the characters. Stephen becomes more desperate with each passing hour, and his true nature – less wunderkind, more spoiled brat – comes to the fore. By the end, we just want to smack him and send him to bed without any supper.

Jack Tynan (L) and Francisco J. Rodriguez. Photo: Ed Krieger

The set, by Pete Hickok, is handsome, though the design is hampered by having to switch among seven distinct locations; that’s easier to do on film than onstage, and the resulting scene changes tend to be clunky. Mylette Nora’s costumes and Kelley Finn’s lights are subtle and appropriate, while Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design emphasizes the nervousness of the increasingly melodramatic plot.

Director Cathy Fitzpatrick Linder has staged the play well, but has either allowed (or encouraged) some peculiar facial expressions and line readings which seem out of place and puzzling.

Mr. Willimon is a veteran of a number of political campaigns, so we must assume he knows what he’s writing about. If this play truly draws on reality, American politics is even more grotesque than we’ve been led to believe, and everyone connected with it is a scumbag of the first order. While that doesn’t come as a complete surprise, it’s depressing nevertheless: this is a play which says a resounding “no” to American politics.

Jennifer Cannon and Jack Tynan. Photo: Ed Krieger

Nevertheless, I found it hard to believe that the central plot point – Stephen’s not reporting the late-night meeting with Duffy immediately, but instead waiting till morning – was a transgression severe enough to warrant cutting his head off and putting it on a pike. Maybe that’s how it really happens in presidential politics, but, if so, these people are even more whacked-out than they appear.

There’s something I found more troubling, though. A well-known playwright who in recent years has also become a well-known television writer once said the reason he prefers writing for the stage is that he can write subtext; “television,” he continued, “has no subtext.”

And, to my mind, neither does Farragut North. The characters talk a lot, but we never get a sense of what they’re thinking or feeling underneath the words. It’s “what you see is what you get” – in this case, an engrossing (if nasty) story with some interesting (if nasty) characters, but no hint of where they came from, or what propels them to do what they do the way they do it. It’s an attractive and polished surface, but I wish we had occasionally gone a little deeper.

Farragut North
Written by Beau Willimon
Directed by Cathy Fitzpatrick Linder

Through May 21

Odyssey Theatre
2055 S. Sepulveda Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Tickets: 323-960-7788 or www.plays411.com/farragut


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