By Lynn Venhaus
What price glory? St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s savvy state-of-play production of “Farragut North” sketches a fascinating world that we have only glimpsed as it escalates to a fever pitch every four years.
Beau Willimon’s insider look at cutthroat politics on the presidential primary election campaign trail premiered in 2008, and is named for a metro stop in D.C. He wrote it as a Juilliard Playwriting Fellow, loosely based on his experiences working for Vermont Governor Howard Dean, a one-time frontrunner in the 2004 presidential race.
The playwright, a 1995 John Burroughs School graduate, first had experiences on Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaigns. So, this territory is obviously in his wheelhouse.
Willimon’s sharp commentary on backroom politics, 21st Century-style, remains topical even though it came out over a decade ago. As sharks circle, anticipating the Iowa Caucus kickoff to the 2008 U.S. presidential primary elections, this whip-smart drama pulsates with passion and purpose.
Director Wayne Salomon shrewdly exposes the underbelly of political operators like he’s playing in a championship chess tournament. As he tautly maneuvers the manipulators, we see the designs, desires and dreams of every character through what is being said and not said, while others lie in wait, like a cobra. Who will survive, thrive or take a dive?
A crackerjack cast smoothly delivers Willimon’s clever wordplay and penetrating dialogue, nimbly rattling off statistics, polls and facts with confidence. Don’t worry – it’s not just a numbers game, for there is enough human drama to keep us riveted.
Salomon achieves an immediate lived-in authenticity. Staged under the harsh glare of artificial lighting, in drab hotel rooms on the Iowa campaign trail, this nondescript set by Patrick Huber fittingly captures the dullness.
Despite the banality, you can feel the drive of the participants during this dreary January period because it is the first major contest of a very long season. Those who don’t do well tend to drop out in the coming days and weeks after Iowa.
Enter the political operatives on the same side, Spencer Sickmann (Stephen Bellamy) and David Wassilak (Paul Zara) in the throes of battle, with the opposition represented by Tom Duffy (Peter Mayer). These top-tier, highly intelligent actors bounce off each other with a tight rhythm, unleashing diatribes with remarkable force and skill.
The modern political landscape may indeed be a circus, but the people who play in that minefield are as fascinating as any Shakespeare concocted.
We meet our polished practitioners of spin in a ubiquitous hotel bar, trash-talking and regaling each other with stories of glory days, fueled by alcohol and lust for power.
A few characters are more transparent than others, but Willimon is quite cunning in his introductions of hotshot press secretary Bellamy, his boss/mentor Zara and the bright-eyed new kid Ben, played with eager-beaver wide-eyed enthusiasm by Joshua Parrack.
Bellamy is a likable smarty-pants whose cockiness just may be his downfall, but how he’s usually one step ahead is impressive. Sickmann is stunning in this labor-intensive endeavor, for he is on stage in every scene, and as the smartest guy in the room, the passages he must convey are long. But he does so with great zeal.
Wassilak’s character is the wild card here, and as he reveals his clever string-pulls, it’s quite a feat, a new facet of the actor’s work.
Mayer’s character is the necessary instigator, and he quickly nails this slick master whose scenes are few but his influence looms large.
Into this mix comes a major media outlet. Shannon Nara is Ida, a New York Times reporter who assimilates herself as “one of the guys.” She does what journalists are paid to do – network and observe. Nara projects a smart, seasoned professional who knows how to meet the demands of her work – and not show her cards.
The other female role, Molly, is a young, very ambitious, starry-eyed campaign worker who is committed to getting what she wants. This character feels the most cliched, forced. But Hollyn Gayle does what she can by showing her sly determination.
As the layers are peeled back on some truly fascinating
characters – ones who are far more motivated than we initially think — get
ready for sneaky turns in this soul-sucking journey.
Nevertheless, one character represents the ideology of successful political candidates, and that is a Latino restaurant server working at his family’s place. Luis Aguilar earnestly professes hope that his chosen candidate can do the things he says, that can fulfill the hopes and dreams of Americans who want opportunities.
We are reminded of the democratic process, putting the ‘why’ into perspective, while the rest of the play is about the who, what and how. After all, a candidate who gets people fired up is always the goal.
It doesn’t matter that this play occurs before widespread use of smart phones and social media, for Willimon’s sobering account of modern election campaigns still has the same core that marks all cautionary tales: the games ambitious people play when stakes are high.
Therefore, this timely staging has as much in common with “Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington” idealism as it does with “The Sweet Smell of Success”
cynicism and the real-world optics created by Nixon’s dirty tricksters,
perfected by political consultant/absolute power master planner Karl Rove and the
media cross-over — evil divide-and-conquer architect Roger Ailes.
Even though Americans tend to not like watching the sausage being made, this riveting piece gives us precise characters worth getting to know.
Willimon went on to develop an American version of the British inside-politics series “House of Cards” for Netflix and served as showrunner for four seasons. And he received an Oscar nomination for adapting “Farragut North” into the George Clooney-Grant Heslov film “The Ides of March” in 2011.
Therefore, it’s interesting to see where it all began. This is far from the last word in politics, but if Willimon is keeping tabs, I want to see that outtake. And Salomon, also responsible for sound design, has well-chosen his opening and closing songs as apt punctuation.
“Farragut North” is presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio Feb. 8 – 24 at The Gaslight Theatre, 360 N. Boyle Ave, St. Louis. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are available through Metrotix.com For more information, visit www.stlas.org.