“Farragut North”: A Taut, Timely Political Tragedy

‘Tis the season to be cynical.

Election season, when billions of dollars flood the country in search of votes, when TV and internet screens are clogged with ads and arguments.

Just the time for a slick, smart play about politics.  And that’s what Farragut North seems to promise. We’re in Iowa, days before the caucuses, with the campaign team of the Democratic front-runner, a progressive from Vermont.

At first, it’s hard not to look for the real-world parallels.  The governor is raising his money from small donations. Sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders — or Howard Dean (also from Vermont), who pioneered populist funding in his 2004  White House bid.  And our playwright, Beau Willimon, worked on Dean’s staff.

So the first half of Farragut North weaves the frantic, tangled web of high-stakes politics.  We follow press secretary Stephen Bellamy as he angles for coverage from a New York Times reporter, takes an intern to bed, then gets a secret call from the opposing camp.

The call turns everything upside down.  We now see the seamy side of the process — the fakery, the backroom deals, the dirty tricks.  But we see Stephen do the right thing: He tells his boss.

So Act I sketches a swift, savvy picture of politics — its bright, busy surface and its dark, mean underside.  Act II gives us an equally swift, equally dark tragedy: The fall of a man undone by the flaw in his character.  Each scene reveals a surprise, and by the end there’s nothing left of Stephen, not even a lesson learned.

Willimon can show the dark side — he’s the creator of the bleak Netflix hit, House of Cards, about a Macbeth-like couple who reach the White House by stepping over corpses.  But he also shows us more — the deep, complex story of human yearnings and failings beneath the cynical shell. We care about Stephen, even as we loathe his weakness, and what it drives him to do.

Staging this fast-moving, many-layered drama is far from easy.   But Conejo Players Theatre, known for big musicals, does a crisp, compelling job.  Designer John Eslick starts us off with a set that looks simple and familiar — yet eerily foreboding.  Director Elissa Anne Polansky puts it all in motion and keeps it there, never letting the pace or focus drop; she makes juggling knives look easy.

The players rise to the occasion commendably.  Eslick, as the opposing campaign manager, uses his power gently but firmly, a helpful uncle who’s seen it all yet hasn’t become bitter.  Bryan White, as Stephen’s harried boss, nicely hints that he may be in a tad deep, then delivers the first of Act II’s hammer blows in a strong, finely balanced monolog.  And Allison Klinker creates a polished pro of a reporter who’s comfortable sinking to any level.

Parker Harris brings to Stephen the troubling combination of intelligence and unthinking privilege, wielding his wits with charisma but little wisdom.  And Katy Jarvis’ precocious, coltish Molly circles him like a moth entranced by a flame.  Both make us wince at what their characters don’t know they don’t know.

Fred Saliba also deserves a word for his humble monolog as the Waiter, and Beth Glasner for costumes that are invisibly apt, even when clothes become part of the story.

This is a play that leaves you thinking — and talking.  Beyond the razzle-dazzle of power flowing back and forth, there’s the real point of it all: Whom does the power serve?  Beneath the snappy cynicism, there’s a timeless question:  What is virtue, and how do we live it?

Farragut North is as tight and deep a political drama as we’ve had in decades.  Conejo Players are doing it proud.  See it before you vote.
Farragut North, by Beau Willimon, directed by Elissa Anne Polansky.
Presented by Conejo Players Theatre, 351 S. Moorpark Rd., Westlake Village 91361.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through September 17th.

Tickets: <www.conejoplayers.org> or (805) 495-3715.