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June 25, 2009

Feeling nostalgic for election coverage these days? The less than stellar news cycle, dominated by grim economic reports and unsettling foreign affairs, has many of us longing for last year’s giddy roller-coaster campaign, in which politics temporarily became the national thrill-a-minute pastime.

Gallery Link: On Stage – Play Photos > Farragut North ( 2009 )

“Farragut North,” Beau Willimon’s engaging drama about the dirty tricks and brutal backstabbing of those conducting the spin war for aspiring presidents, attempts to reignite our tapped-out passion for political one-upmanship. The play, which is having its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, may not be able to compete with the loony stranger-than-fiction cast of recent election battles or offer us any stop-the-presses scoops about our Swift Boat campaign culture, but it does capture the frenzied scheming and counter-scheming of would-be Washington kingmakers.

Better yet, the production has a rising superstar on board who could give Barack Obama a run for his charismatic money. Chris Pine, the paparazzi’s current object of affection after his breakout role as Capt. James T. Kirk in the new “Star Trek” film, stars as Stephen Bellamy, a 25-year-old press secretary for a Democratic presidential candidate who remains an invisible presence throughout. Imagine Karl Rove as a fit, chicly dressed media strategist for the other side and you have some idea of the nature of this latest boy genius.

A morality tale about an attractively malign central character, “Farragut North” is as much about what drives Stephen’s merciless pursuit of victory as it is about the way political machinations have eclipsed what’s really at stake in our elections. As a character study of a “crackberry” generation mover-and-shaker, who lives a life of wall-to-wall work (with scheduled barroom binges and hotel room dalliances), the play has a fresh accuracy that suggests the playwright, who worked for both Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York and Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, was taking juicy notes on the campaign trail.

But the drama doesn’t concentrate its energies as satisfyingly as it might. Willimon tries (and mostly succeeds) in staying one step ahead of the audience with his foxy plot. Yet this hectic legerdemain distracts from character development, and the result is that even such crucial figures as Paul Zara, Stephen’s battle-hardened boss, who’s played by Chris Noth (a.k.a. Mr. Big from “Sex and the City”), and Molly, the 19-year-old sexually assertive campaign intern, who’s played by the entrancing Olivia Thirlby (“Juno”), can seem like functions of Stephen’s story more than fleshed-out figures in their own right.

Set in Des Moines, Iowa, weeks before the state’s caucuses will officially commence, the play begins — where else? — in a booth at a bar. Stephen is holding court with Paul, Ida Horowicz (Mia Barron), a New York Times journalist who’s as professionally manipulative as she is easily manipulated, and Ben (Dan Bittner), an earnest deputy press secretary whose idealism hasn’t yet been contaminated by the ugly reality around him.

This opening scene sets up expectations that these ruthless talkers, who are cackling over the way Stephen once pinned the anti-Semitic label on a rival candidate, are operating in a David Mamet universe. But the production, directed by Doug Hughes (who also staged the attractive new revival of “Oleanna” at the Mark Taper Forum), treats the play more like a topical David Hare drama in which the compromises of private conscience and the debasement of public values are seen as inextricably linked to each other.

Willimon subtly introduces a snowballing complication into the plot when Stephen meets Tom Duffy (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the campaign manager for a rival candidate, at a dingily discreet restaurant. A furtive job offer sets off a squall of intrigue in which all parties are implicated in a contest of professional sabotage.

But this story line is just a useful device. The riveting interest is always Pine’s seductive double-talk, the way he maniacally stirs up trouble whenever he feels the heat from his incessantly moaning phone. There’s a reason his Stephen is so adroit at his job — a genially handsome exterior conceals a ruthlessly Machiavellian interior. He’s upfront about his moral shortcomings, but somehow that only adds to his lethal charm. Molly, who’s no old-fashioned purist, can’t help wishing that this sad, self-made dreamboat was made of better stuff. Pine coaxes us into falling into the same sinister trap.

This well-acted Atlantic Theater Company production includes several members from the original off-Broadway company, including Noth, who presents a flabby, middle-aged reflection of who Stephen will become if he doesn’t get out of this awful racket. It’s a well-knit ensemble that has little difficulty with the play’s rapid pulse.

The sets by David Korins aren’t particularly eye-catching, but then the locations aren’t supposed to be five-star. Joshua White and Bec Stupak’s video collages of TV news clips and election sights and sounds don’t add much to the visual palette, but they do keep the staging’s motor revved.

The strength of “Farragut North,” however, lies in the reflex duplicity that marks Stephen’s dealing with everyone in his orbit, particularly Molly. She may not be a fully formed character, but as portrayed by Thirlby with a tricky mix of guile and naivete, this jean-clad pixie is perhaps the only one with any chance to teach Stephen about the limits of work and the necessity of trust.


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