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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Gallagher's Stephen is the super-aggressive press secretary to a Governor running for President. At just 25 (the same age as Gallagher') he's cannier than political operatives twice his age, a veteran spinmeiser who's mastered the art of manipulation and dirty tricks that seem to be as much a part presidential campaigns as stump speeches and shaking potential voters' hands. To watch Stephen at work, and even in a rare private moment, is to see the political gamesman at his self-serving, always on, win-at-any cost worst.
Gallagher is terrific as the cocky, egotistical Pol. So are his fellow cast members:
Chris Noth, in a welcome departure from his Law & Order detective image, as Stephen's boss Paul, who puts trustworthiness above all but is not immune to occasional opportunities for some risky relaxation while on the campaign trailThe fast-paced drama that showcases all this acting talent, both individually and as a tightly meshed ensemble was penned by Beau Williimon, an up and coming young playwright and screen writer who's previously displayed a leaning towards current events (last season's Lower Ninth at the off-off-Broadway Flea Theater was about the Katrina disaster). Because Willimon's emphasis is on the staffers who are responsible for dealing with their candidates' ups and downs, getting positive and headline worthy press coverage and nabbing important endorsements, the candidates themselves are never seen. They are nevertheless a constant presence in the snappy dialogue.
How was Willimon able to come up with such an authentic flavor for the schemes and double-crosses that drive his plot forward? (Watch Your Back would be an apt alternative Farragut North, the name of a Washington D.C. subway station near which many former hot shots now work as lobbyists.) The answer is hands on experience.
The playwright was a volunteer in Senator Charles Schumer's 1998 campaign against Alfonse D'Amato, a race that included a nasty moment that is referred to early in the play (D'Amato was undone by a leak about a race-inflected derogatory remark against Schumer. His four months as an advance man before the Iowa caucuses for Vermont Governor Dean's campaign undoubtedly accounts for Farragut North's unseen candidate, Governor Morris, seeming more than a little Dean-like. Not so incidentally, that campaign's press secretary, Jay Carson, is also a close friend.
The drama's nine scenes take place in and around Des Moines, in the presidential campaign defining state of Iowa. While the focus is on getting Stephen and Paul's candidate elected, the story is not reallyabout whether he wins or loses. In the final analysis, neither is this really an expose of the political process but the story of one young man —Gallagher's Stephen— who starts out genuinely smitten with the idea of making a difference through being part of the political process, but whose hubris eventually squelches his better impulses and even the ability to sustain a personal relationship.
While the stage is initially bare, with the only scenic elements deep blue walls with white squares created by Paul Gallo's lighting. But during the course of the play, David Korin rolls out an assortment of suitable sets for scenes in Stephen and Paul's bedrooms, an airport waiting room, a campaign office, and the shabby restaurant where Stephen and Tom Duffy, Paul's opposite in the opponent's camp, have several secret meetings. The various episodes are introduced with pulsing sound by Walter Trarbach and David Van Tieghem and flashy, CNN-like projections by Joshua White.
The opening scene sees Stephen, Paul, Ben, and Ida having drinks in a hotel bar. It doesn't take more than half a drink to see that the camaraderie masks the dynamics of mutual exploitation among these people. The plot thickens when Stephen takes his eye of the ball long enough for a dalliance with Molly, the attractive intern, and when he risks a meeting with the other campaign manager. You may think you've caught on to all the secrets and lies by the end of the first act, but things are likely to turn out quite different from your expectations.
The playwright ends things as he begins, in Iowa. He leaves you knowing less about the candidate's future than that of his handlers. Dough Hughes guides the actors from scene to scene with the finesse of President-elect Obama's team. Which brings up the question of whether Farragut North, coming as it does with the current Presidential campaign finally ended, audiences might not be too fatigued by real life events to be interested in spending two hours watching the backstage shenanigans of a made-up campaign.
The enough with politics factor might have been a problem if John McCain had won the election, since his campaign operatives were more devious and blundering than Willomon's fictional characters. However, seeing Farragut North right after the successful end of the Obama campaign, which was run without malice and internal back-stabbing, is actually quite uplifting. No doubt, politics will still attract people like Stephen Bellamy and Tom Duffy but, maybe, like the once solidly white electorate, they will soon represent the minority instead of the majority.