There are few experiences more disconcerting than watching actors pretend to share an easy, unforced laugh and finding yourself unable to join in. This is how Farragut North begins. At first, it's confusing, both guilt- and anger-inspiring, as though you're failing the actors or the playwright or vice versa. Later, it makes more sense. These actors — portraying three political hacks and the New York Times reporter they're courting as they sit around a table at a grimy bar in Iowa at the frayed beginning of a presidential primary — are not the only ones pretending to laugh. Their characters are pretending too. They drop their pretenses soon enough, and then things get ugly.
Farragut North is named for the Washington, D.C. subway stop where political consultants who work in the downtown area around Farragut Square begin their workdays. These are the men and women the pols in the play hope never to become — the sedate ones who crunch numbers far from the shitty Iowa diners and New Hampshire hotels where the real politics happen. Alas, the transformation is probably inevitable.
The action in the diners and hotels is so fast and frothy that no one can survive it long. These folks, sitting at the bar and swilling Jack 'n' Cokes that can't quite cut through the caffeine buzz they've spent the rest of the day acquiring, are fast approaching burnout. And this is only Iowa. By Super Tuesday, they'll all need nice, easy office jobs to keep themselves from mental and physical collapse. (Whether they will recognize this necessity is quite another story; campaign junkies are about as amenable to giving up the trail as meth-heads are to putting down the pipe.)
By Beau Willimon. Directed by Joseph Adler. With Nick Duckart, Betsy Graver, David Hemphill, Deborah L. Sherman, David Sirois, Robert Strain, and Gregg Weiner. Through January 24. GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119; gablestage.com
But now they are happily strung out, basking in campaign camaraderie and high on nervous energy. They are Paul Zara (Gregg Weiner), the campaign manager for a Democratic presidential candidate named Morris; Stephen Bellamy (Nick Duckart), said campaign's 25-year-old whiz-kid press manager; and Ben (David Hemphill), a smart, young gofer with big ambitions. With them is NYT reporter Ida Horowicz (Deborah Sherman), and she's the reason you can't quite trust the jittery laughter emanating from the quarto's table.
The politicos are trying to convince her they're all good friends, she's trying to convince them likewise, and they are all hoping fervently that the other side will fuck up — Ida hopes the pols will let slip some salubrious tidbit that will get her byline on the front page, and the pols hope she'll become so enamored of their affections that she'll drop her journalistic objectivity and write something extraordinarily nice about candidate Morris.
But then comes a moment of apparent honesty. Discussing the candidate, Paul seems genuinely moved. Weiner's Paul — speaking in a deep, rich drawl as edibly smoky as Grandma's gumbo — outlines how Morris's campaign will spread a message of change and hope from sea to shining sea. "The grassroots will become the mainstream," he says, "and the mainstream will water the lawn! All the way from Maine to New Mexico — from Alaska to Florida!" Ida is impressed. She is less so when Stephen attempts a similar show of emotion. "I want to change the world," he says, but he sounds like he's hocking a car.
Can he be trusted? And if he can't, what does that say about Morris? The answer to the former question is no, while the latter is probably above playwright Beau Willimon's pay grade. What Willimon has written is a fast, punchy show that demonstrates how the ideal of democracy, and the democratic spirit of those who most wish to participate in it, is corrupted by democracy's very practice.
Not long after the pols and their pet reporter leave the bar, Stephen receives a phone call from Tom Duffy (Robert Strain), the campaign manager for Morris's chief competitor, candidate Pullman. He invites Stephen to a secret meeting and explains that Morris's campaign is already sunk. Campaign Pullman is prepared to deploy every dirty electoral trick devised by amoral operatives from Donald Segretti to Karl Rove in order to secure victory in Iowa and beyond, and indeed has already begun doing so. A shocked Stephen notes this makes the primary contender no better than Republicans, and Duffy doesn't disagree. Duffy, looking suddenly old and tired, explains, "I've seen way too many Democrats bite the dust because they refused to roll in the mud with the elephants." Republicans are tougher and smarter, and it's time to learn from them.
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Never mind if the tactics Duffy has in mind — which include, among other things, push-polling, the creation of traffic jams near strategic polling stations, and lying to pollsters — are, if not technically treasonous, at the very least toxic to the kind of democracy our elections are meant to ritualize and celebrate. In the upper reaches of power, the ends always justify the means. Or so one must believe in order to win.
Most of the play's remainder deals with the way Stephen's meeting with Duffy reverberates through Campaign Morris, leading to betrayal after betrayal of the camaraderie groped after in the first scene. Through it all, candidate Morris remains offstage. The implication is that the realities of politics have little to do with the names at the top of the bill — that the real battles of politics are the ones happening in the little rooms just beyond the clapping crowds of the rallies, whom we hear in scene after scene of Farragut North, cheering behind the huge scrim of an American flag that's Farragut's primary set. They are like an unseen audience of ghosts, their noise the clamor of a polity lost.
Joseph Adler directs his cast with feeling and anger. In most scenes, they spit their lines at each other with a ferocity that would seem out of place if they were having the same conversations under saner conditions. Deborah Sherman's Ida Horowicz is a shark with legs, and Nick Duckart's Stephen is the ugliest and most damaged creation to jangle across this stage all year. He's only 25 and already a wreck. Completely out of touch with social niceties and even the basic precepts of common decency, he abuses women and underlings with equally thoughtless felicity. He barely even seems conscious, staring out at the incomprehensible world with mean, crazy eyes that scan a room a dozen times a second. It's not that his sins against propriety don't bother him; it's that they don't matter. They have nothing to do with winning.