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.
Peter Mayer and Spencer Sickman in “Farragut North” at St. Louis Actors Studio. Photo by Patrick HuberEnter 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
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
Mayer’s character is the necessary instigator, and he
quickly nails this slick master whose scenes are few but his influence looms
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.
Photo of Spencer Sickmann and Hollyn Gayle by Patrick HuberAs 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
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.