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Farragut North @ Geffen Playhouse

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Beau Willimon's Farragut North, now onstage in its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, begins first with a burst of layered noise courtesy a handful of media outlets and their various talking heads rehashing political talking points, and then is followed by the noise of a group of four ambitious people talking rehashing politics and the media--their bread and butter--in an Iowa bar.

While at first it feels intrusive and confusing--who are these people and what are they talking about?--by the end of the play you come to realize that everything these four people talk about in one story of political manipulation and its journalistic rendering is a part of the story of their own lives. Loyalty, secrets, sacrifices, bedfellows and "spin" all compose the fabric of this booze-fueled gab session, but also serve as the recurrent themes in the story that is about to unfold in these characters' lives over the next couple of days on the campaign trail and in their own, far more fragile, personal lives.

Stephen Bellamy (Chris Pine) is young, talented, and finding tremendous success as the press secretary for Governor Morris in his bid to run for President in a crowded Democrat playing field. His twenty-five years make him brash and bold and, ultimately, foolish, but when we first meet him he is as charming as you'd expect someone in his position to be. He seems wise to defer to the wisdom of his boss and elder, Paul Zara (Chris Noth), Morris' campaign manager, and is willing to flirt and cajole with Times' reporter Ida Horowicz (Mia Barron) just enough to give their professional give-and-take relationship the sheen of actual friendship. Bellamy's underling is the subservient Ben (Dan Bittner), whose raw enthusiasm and veneer of innocence make him the foil for now.

What we know about these characters is fittingly as much as would be printed on a single sheet of paper, whether it be a carefully crafted press release, a resume, a front-page profile, or a simple by-line. Bellamy, Zara, and Horowicz are their work; they might make reference to an ex-girlfriend, a spouse, or a fiance respectively, but those people are not here--they're not even along for the ride--and it is immediately apparent that in the world of politics and the press who cover it there is little room to have a life of your own. They make the stories and tell the stories, all in the hopes of bettering their positions in the lives they'd be hard pressed to recognize out of the context of their work.

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Over the course of a couple of days leading up to a tense Iowa primary, Bellamy's world implodes through a series of choices that serve as his own undoing. It is a fast and gut-wrenching fall from the top of the game to the bottom of the heap, all propelled by small choices that betray his fears, insecurities, ambitions, and the only people who could have been his friends. Chris Pine, himself a young star in his own field who recently experienced a dizzying jolt of success with his turn in the remake of Star Trek, is phenomenal as Bellamy. He is the core of the story, and Pine tackles the large role well, filling the sparsely set stage with the dynamic energy of Bellamy's cocky enthusiasm-turned-identity crisis. His scenes with 19-year-old campaign worker and climber in her own right Molly (Olivia Thirlby) are particularly enjoyable, as the two young actors fall deftly in place as they portray the raw emotions that accompany a new flirtation and, in this case, painful realization that mutual affection is not always equal.

Thirlby herself is fantastic in her smaller and pivotal role, offering the perfect blend of savvy unique to those too young to have any savvy to begin with, and the wide-eyed innocence that often bubbles within any fresh kid on the political scene. Noth, as the champion of the underdog and a bit of an underdog himself, provides a cool but commanding support to Pine. Noth's character is cheeky, blustery, and wisely guarded, prone to holding his cards close to his vest then laying them down when he's ready to make a big move--all shades of performance that Noth seems to be comfortable and skilled at playing. Barron, as the seasoned but still ambitious reporter, works well in the small ensemble, but did come off as slightly over-eager in the opening scenes, which thankfully dissipated as the play unfolded. Both Isiah Whitlock Jr (as rival campaign manager Tom Duffy) and Bittner are forced to show remarkable reserve in their respective roles, and do so with chilling aplomb.

Although the play is largely a drama, there are brilliant moments of wit and humor that break the tension and in fact create even more tension. Willimon's dialogue is sharp and natural, delivered with an admirable air of ease from the cast under the direction of Doug Hughes, whose production of Mamet's Oleanna is currently at the Taper. Angelenos will delight in a cringe-worthy barb at the expense of our own local media. We should also take delight in the fact that we have a venue like the Geffen that continually showcases strong new works of theatre performed by actors most people are limited to seeing on the big or small screen.

Farragut North is as tangled and verbose as one expects the intersection of politics and media to be, but it is delightfully painful to watch the strands of these people's lives come together and fall apart. If this fictional campaign was like a knitted scarf, these characters are each just one small stitch in a larger, more complicated pattern of individuals who stand behind an emblematic and utilitarian whole; the finished product may appear unblemished and free of imperfections, but what the wearer might never know of are those dropped stitches--the mistakes and fumbles that were eradicated by the next move, the next knot in a seemingly endless chain.

Farragut North is at the Geffen Playhouse until July 26th. Tickets available via TicketMaster or the box office (310) 208-5454