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Farragut North It's certainly no surprise that politics is ugly, so political junkies won't find much to disagree with, yell at or protest in Beau Willimon's down-and-dirty insider's dissection. Willimon worked on Howard Dean's flamed-out 2004 presidential campaign, so he knows where all the skeletons are buried. Backstage at the Iowa presidential primary is the setting for Willimon's drama, where quasi-hero whiz kid Stephen (Jordan Jaffe) is press secretary for candidate Governor Morris. The play's neat trick is that we never see the candidates, only their handlers. Twenty-five years old, Stephen is the golden boy with Washington at his feet. He has impeccable credentials, the trust of mentor Paul (Seán Patrick Judge), an insider's friendship with the press, represented by a Maureen Dowd type (Danica Dawn Johnston), and a fawning subordinate, Ben (Andy Ingalls). Stephen plays in the big leagues, MVP material for sure, so it's no surprise when other political operatives start aiming for his head. Double crosses, leaks and potential leaks are used as weapons to disable him, and Willimon neatly places red herrings to keep us guessing what will happen next. Will teen campaign volunteer Molly (Alexandria Ward) sell him out? What about that other old campaign pro, Tom (Joel Sandel), who represents the other candidate? Can he be trusted? Can any of them? There's a neat little All About Eve twist at the end to keep our spirits from soaring too high, but there's not much here that's really original. Sandel and Judge, smooth veterans, play their characters with such easy panache that they seem to be in HD. Jaffe doesn't vary his outbursts, so, as Steven gets more desperate, there's no build-up; each crisis is handled like the one before. And there's just no plausible way to explain that offstage snow machine at the beginning of each scene that lightly covers a desktop or actor's head — like the "fog of war," is this supposed to mean that politics is the ultimate "snow job"? Some metaphors are best left unseen, even in Iowa. Farragut North will validate your every Washington nightmare. If not the most insightful, the play's awfully relevant since another presidential campaign has already begun (!). It's always good to be reminded yet again not to take anything — or any candidate — at face value. Through September 24. Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation Blvd., 713-417-3552. — DLG

Republic Day Playwright Tom Stell directs the world premiere of his own play about just how savage class warfare can really be, using cinematic techniques and a largely talented young cast to create vivid snapshots of unrestrained brutality. A bare stage is populated with simple props as needed, which disappear as quickly as they arrive, while projected images suggest a location or a violent action. The starkness suits well the theme of man's inhumanity to man — especially in times of violent revolution. Here the aristocratic "Browns" control the wealth while the plebian "Grays" struggle for survival. Playwright and director Tom Stell plays the patriarch of the Rivers Family, an imprisoned revolutionary leader. He enters late in the drama but is convincing as a conflicted leader with few illusions. Leighza Walker plays the wife he abandoned for the cause, and she is warm and wise as intended. The lead role is that of son John Rivers (Kurtis von Krueger), who aspires to escape poverty and does so by hook or by crook, mostly the latter. Von Krueger captures moments of drama, and some humor, but John's moral compass is so changeable that a convincing characterization may not be possible. The opposite is true of his brother Simon, a hot-headed, single-minded revolutionary acted with fire and enthusiasm by James Monaghan, who puts his brand on the role. Lindsy Greig is tall, blond, beautiful and in admirable physical shape — she is interestingly persuasive as a "Brown" slumming with John Rivers. The Rivers family is rounded out by daughter Beth (Liz King), who is quietly effective in the first act and noisily so in the second. I liked less well her paramour and father of the child she is carrying, Trevor Winchester. Tucker Rhodes plays him and looks like a very young Beatle, but speaks rapidly with little variation and even less diction. Rod Todd and Sandi Morgan play the parents of Trevor and other roles and are quite good in them all. Shawn Everiss and Norm Dillon play brutal soldiers — Everiss etches a vivid portrait. Playwright Stell leaves some of the brutality offstage with sound effects only, but there is enough onstage, effectively presented, to service several plays. This is Stell's first full-length work and shows talent worth cultivating, but some of the many scenes go on too long, and their points might be telegraphed instead of spelled out — irony needs to be brief. And the pantomime ending is much too subtle for a play with such bravura power. Judicious trimming would heighten impact, but playwright Stell has fashioned an ambitiously epic drama and found a young and capable cast to flesh out his parable. Through October 1. Big Head Productions at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak, 832-889-7837. — JJT

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