Ensemble's 'Farragut North' deftly captures competitive spirit within politicial circles

Taxes? The economy? Immigration? Education? Social Security? The environment?

Those issues and others important to Americans have almost no place in the biting satire "Farragut North," now playing through Sunday, Sept. 6 on Ensemble Theatre's extremely intimate Playground auditorium. I believe I counted a single line or perhaps two at the most that referenced an actual issue in this engrossing play that features stellar acting by a talented ensemble.

Somehow it doesn't seem fitting that this engaging play, which offers a rare, irresistible glimpse into the workings of behind-the-scenes campaign strategizing, belongs in a theater that suggests small, carefree children at play.

Technically, the setting for this play is Iowa in the weeks preceding the Hawkeye State's caucuses. But you might as well refer to the setting as nothing less than a battleground.

"Farragut North" doesn't tell us anything we don't know; who among us thinks preparations for political debates and campaigns center on issues? No, they're about winning at all costs, moral or immoral, and even legal or illegal, as playwright Beau Willimon suggests.

And Willimon, creator of the political TV series "House of Cards," writes from experience in this deftly-observed comedy. This man, after all, volunteered for Charles Schumer's first Senate campaign in 1998 and as a press aide for Howard Dean's 2004 campaign. He's also worked on Hillary Clinton's and Bill Bradley's campaign. The playwright told the Boston Globe that while "Farragut North's" fictional, its characters are an "amalgamation" of various people he's encountered while working campaigns.

They're people such as 25-year-old Stephen Bellamy, a whiz of a press secretary for a Democratic presidential hopeful, the envy of people twice his age when it comes to his ability to win over a reporter.

They're individuals like Tom Duffy, campaign manager for the rival candidate. You've heard of a pea-sized brain? How about a microscopic or non-existent soul? That characterizes the sly Duffy, who'll do anything, legal or not, to win.

We're immediately drawn into a world in which the vocabulary mirrors that of a hotly contested-competition: "Game day," "win," "team," "crush," "beaten," "bullied," busted."

Taut scenes move at a rapid pace in this play that unfolds over about 24 hours, reinforcing the urgency and desperation these characters have to crush the opposition and claim victory. You'd never know this is a primary and the opponent's a fellow Democrat.

The concise scenes sizzle with snappy dialogue. Juicy, wise-cracking, sexually suggestive sentences make us salivate, in a sick thrill kind of way, for more.

For all the sexual humor and smark-aleky talk, you've got to admit: "Farragut North" presents our country's political system as a sad state of affairs in which victories come before candidates' vehemence about their platform and specifics.

"It's your best interest which should be making headlines, not minor shake ups in our organization," a character named Ben notes at the very end.

He's deputy press secretary for Democratic Governor Morris, who seemingly is running away with the state of Iowa and appears primed to focus on New Hampshire.

But an eyebrow-raising blunder from the seemingly incomparable and experienced Bellamy makes us learn otherwise.

Willimon may be well-versed in the backdoor preparations for campaigns. However, I found it hard to believe that Bellamy, the "wunderkind," ever-experienced press secretary, as he's described in a summary, would make such a gaffe. It seems a stretch.

But it's hard to find too much fault with "Farragut North," which will keep your interest piqued with its surprising revelations.

Ensemble's production will do likewise with Kyle Huff's quick-paced direction, full of attention to detail.

Case in point: A fresh-faced, boyish Nate Miller's cool, charming, confident and cocky Bellamy leans his arms back and clasps his hands at the back of his head, suggesting a relaxed, self-assured man who knows nothing can go wrong; he's the best and nothing can unravel him...or so he thinks. The demeanor's quite the contrast from the dismayed, lip pursing, unsteady and broken, jobless young man Miller plays to perfection toward the end. Anger suffuses him, directed at deputy press secretary Ben (a quietly composed Andrew Keller).

Bellamy's almost like a Shakespearean character with a tragic flaw; as seasoned as he seemed, he appears to have a streak of naiveté: why, oh why would you agree to meet with the opposition's campaign manager for any reason? It's hard to sympathize with him. But Willimon's trying to make a point, not get us to sympathize with his characters

He meets with the other side, and the individual representing the rival campaign, the aforementioned Duffy (Ian Hinz, at times understated, at times ready-to-pounce and a bit too young- looking for the part) proves politics can be rough and soul-free: Make a mistake and it'll return as a ghost in your nightmares.

Bellamy wisely doesn't forget the bedroom -- or young interns -- in this tale set in political circles. Echoes of "That Woman" Monica Lewinsky come courtesy of Molly, a 19-year-old helping with the campaign.

Olivia Scicolone shines in the role, imbuing her with cheerful, sexual energy in a coquettish kind of way. But when the situation becomes bad for her, Bellamy and the campaign manager, Scicolone convincingly conveys a no-nonsense, troubled demeanor, an ambitious woman who knows her situation is no joke anymore.

Ashley Bossard has a playful, flirtatious manner as the Times reporter, but she also imparts an assertiveness and shrewdness suggesting she's not easily put upon.

As campaign manager Paul Zara, Chris Bizub has a folksy, content aura who knows he has the best in Bellamy. Later, Bizub seamlessly transitions into a bitter, unforgiving, shocked boss.

Hinz and Huff double as the set designers, and the symbolism in their set is insightful. It's marked by red and blue, which in one place crisscrosses as splattered paint, suggesting tension and battle. At other places on stage, red mark one area, while the other sports blue. Think of it as the "sidelines" where the battle lines are drawn; the reds (Republicans) are on one side, the blues (the Democrats) are on the other before the battle.

It would be nice if the set rotated by itself, or at least we didn't see the actors move it to change scenes, which breaks the fourth wall. But the set perfectly captures what the playwright's trying to say.

It's all-out war at first, then, after victory, the issues.



WHAT: "Farragut North"

WHEN: Through Sunday. Performances are 8 p.m. today as well as Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Ensemble Theatre's Playground Theater, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland.

For tickets, call 216-321-2930 or e-mail tickets@ensemble-theatre.org