- The Washington Times - Monday, July 13, 2009

Farragut North

Stephen Bellamy, the protagonist in Beau Willimon’s “Farragut North” — onstage at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va. — could be any of the young denizens who joined Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and have since descended upon Washington to change the world.

A fresh-faced 25-year-old spokesman for a Democratic presidential campaign, he’s starry-eyed about the candidate who’s primed to win the Iowa caucuses.

Stephen’s boss Paul Zara is a grizzled political veteran with many more years on the trail. But age hasn’t dampened his idealism. He speaks of the campaign he’s running as a “revolution” that will “take back the country.”

These men aren’t total innocents; both have experience in the proverbial making of political sausage. But even then they exhibit a love for electoral gamesmanship. In the play’s opening scene, Stephen shows off his strategic acumen when he recounts the time he won a Senate race by blowing up a rival candidate’s offhand remark into a full-bore controversy over anti-Semitism after he called his Jewish boss a “putzhead” (something that former Sen. Alphonse D’Amato, New York Republican, actually called his Democratic successor, Sen. Charles E. Schumer).

Stephen faces a test of faith when he receives a phone call from Tom Duffy, a strategist on another campaign with a Southern drawl only slightly more discernable than James Carville’s. Stephen knows that his career could be ruined if anyone found out about his clandestine meeting with a rival operative, but he’s intrigued and meets Duffy anyway. There, Duffy claims to have orchestrated a scheme by which he’s managed to get thousands of his own candidate’s Iowa supporters to lie to pollsters and say that they actually plan to vote for Stephen’s boss. This way, Duffy explains, the ostensible front-runner will get complacent, his own candidate gains underdog status, and the ensuing upset victory will look all the more stunning. Duffy wants Stephen to defect.

The decisions Stephen makes during the following day take a toll on his political romanticism. Confronted with the choice of staying loyal to his candidate and losing or abandoning him for the winner, he takes a nebulous middle ground that leaves Paul doubting his loyalty, which, the elder operative says, “in politics, is the only currency you get.” Soon, Stephen’s precociousness morphs into naivete. No longer is he the cocksure flack regaling others with campaign war stories. He’s now a frightened, disillusioned kid.

Eric Sheffer Stevens plays Steve with a mix of verve and vulnerability, credibly portraying a hungry politico who’s on top of the world one night and rejects everything he once believed in the next. Anthony Crane’s Paul, who wins us over with a sentimental story about his first campaign and the importance of sticking by your friends when the chips are down, brings to mind many of the foul-mouthed yet hopelessly idealistic political strategists who populate this town.

Aside from the implausibility of Duffy’s machinations, the characters and dialogue in “Farragut North” are utterly convincing. The play will appeal to political junkies and cynics alike, as it explores themes that exist beyond the Metro stations of downtown Washington: loyalty, trust and just how far people will go to advance themselves — and destroy those who stand in their way.

Yankee Tavern

Politics of a more marginal sort are the subject of Steven Dietz’s “Yankee Tavern,” which profiles the American obsession with conspiracy theories. Adam (also played by Eric Sheffer Stevens), is a graduate student writing a dissertation on the variety of explanations that arose to explain the events of Sept. 11, 2001. He moonlights as a bartender at the wood-paneled Brooklyn tavern his deceased father owned, where he’s joined by Ray (Anderson Matthews, in a hilarious performance that channels the physical likeness of Peter Falk and the pathetic sagacity of Falstaff), a man who seems to have a tin foil hat permanently affixed to his head.

Ray was the best friend of Adam’s father, who committed suicide shortly after the destruction of the World Trade Center. Adam tolerates Ray, providing him with a bottomless bar tab. Ray’s rants, however, eventually verge from the innocuous to the disturbing once he starts questioning the official narrative of Sept. 11. Adam’s academic work has convinced him that conspiracies undermine people’s trust in government, a phenomenon that began after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

In light of this high-minded denunciation of political occultism, it comes as little surprise that Adam has decided to pursue a career in national security. He’s bound for a series of interviews in Washington alongside a Farsi-speaking former professor whom his fiancee, Janet, suspects is more than just a mentor. The play takes on a completely different tone in the second act, when a mysterious stranger who made a brief appearance at the tavern earlier returns to find Janet minding the bar. He tells her of a nebulous plot involving Adam, his professor and a secret computer disk, the circumstances of which are pivotal to the play’s plot, yet hard to follow. This confusion is deliberate; Mr. Dietz is no longer entertaining and enlightening us. He’s playing with us.

What started as a cheeky comedy in the first act has by the second become an improbable thriller with very little to laugh about.

It’s not clear whether Mr. Dietz is ridiculing conspiracy theories, lending them credence or trying to make some other point about our “enormous capacity for belief,” in Ray’s words. Ideas that Mr. Dietz initially mocked no longer seem so derisory by curtain’s end.


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