The political operatives who populate Farragut North talk a great game about loyalty and ideals, their motivation of making a better nation and a better world.
Yet as Beau Willimon’s play unfolds, it becomes apparent from virtually all the characters’ actions that these people will stoop to some pretty low deeds in pursuit of their allegedly high aims.
Willimon’s experience working on the 2004 primary campaign of Howard Dean inspired this 2008 off-Broadway play — it’s not based on particular events of that campaign, but is sparked more by reflections on politics in general. A new group called Black Lab Theatre is giving its Houston premiere, a month before release of a film version that’s been directed by George Clooney, titled The Ides of March.
Farragut North chronicles the meteoric rise and fall of Stephen Bellamy, a wunderkind press secretary working on a primary campaign. As the play begins, Stephen and veteran campaign manager Paul Zara are convinced they are way ahead in polls and certain to “take Iowa.” Things start to go awry when Stephen agrees to a secret meeting with Tom Duffy, manager of a rival candidate. Stephen refuses the job Tom offers but gains information calculated to throw his own campaign into turmoil. Should Stephen trust Tom’s story and tell his boss, revealing his mistake in meeting with Tom? Or should he assume it’s a strategic lie? A reporter learns of the meeting and threatens to make it public, unless Stephen tells her what was discussed.
Mistake No. 2: Stephen falls into an affair with Molly Pearson, a 19-year-old campaign intern who seems all innocence, but proves to have more complicated connections than Stephen anticipated.
The play conveys its characters’ insular world, preoccupied with the minutest details of political strategy. These unappetizing people are so wrapped up in themselves, you may wonder why anyone should care about them. Yet the neat plotting steadily pulls you into the narrative with its way of making little misjudgments snowball into an avalanche of drastic blunders, deception and betrayal. It doesn’t take the flashing images of real-life politicos to remind us how quickly even the most promising careers and campaigns can crumble.
Director Justin Doran’s capable production gains involvement as the protagonist’s situation goes from bad to worse, especially in some painfully frank scenes of bitter confrontation. Though Friday’s opening show could have used a shade more fine-tuning, the performances are essentially sturdy and persuasive.
Jordan Jaffe’s Stephen is properly cocky and impulsive, and better still in his later self-loathing and vicious outbursts at friends-turned-enemies. Sean Patrick Judge projects Paul’s smug certainty and array of amusing quirks. Joel Sandel makes Tom a smooth operator whose genial manner fronts a hard-nosed ruthlessness.
Alexandria Ward proves a particular standout as the affable but troubling Molly, the most sympathetic and complex figure. Danica Dawn Johnston is right on target as a coolly calculating reporter. As eager-to-please campaign lackey Ben, Andy Ingalls oozes weaselly opportunism.
The chief drawbacks are distracting production effects, such as TV screens filled with static that back several scenes, or bursts of snow blowing in from the wings, presumably indicating obfuscation, not actual blizzards. The music before each act ranges from irritating to downright headache-inducing. Not necessary, gang; the political machinations and double-crosses are more than enough to drive us crazy.
8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Through Sept. 24
Black Lab Theatre production
At Frenetic Theatre