Friday Night: Farragut North Is Pretty Much What You'd Expect When You Put "Washington" and "Drama" Together in a Sentence

The setup: Written by Howard Dean staffer Beau Willimon, who worked on Dean's flawed, flamed-out 2004 presidential campaign, this insider's view into the down-and-dirty world of American politics is every bit as corrupt as you'd imagine.

The execution: The Iowa presidential primary race is ground zero 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. (Unlike the film adaptation, starring and directed by George Clooney, which has been completely refashioned to favor Morris.)

At 25, 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 can tell you exactly how many points a recent poll is off, and why and how to fix it. If candidates need constant maintenance to get the right message out to the gullible public, then the people who toil behind the scenes, who pull the strings and write that message, require even higher maintenance. They will do anything to win.

Double crosses, leaks and potential leaks are used as weapons to disable Stephen, 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? 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 he 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 which blows at the beginning of each scene to lightly cover a desktop or actor's head -- like the "fog of war?" Or is this supposed to mean that politics is the ultimate "snow job"? Some metaphors are best left unseen, even in Iowa.

The verdict: For all you political junkies, Farragut North validates your every nightmare. If not the most insightful, it's relevant. Now that another presidential campaign has already begun (!), it's good to have a refresher course about what really happens inside Washington's smoke-filled rooms.

Fridays and Saturdays through September 24. Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation Blvd. 713-417-3552.

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