Electoral sabotage! Pollster manipulation! The screaming 24/7 TV-news cycle! Two weeks after the mad political horse-races wrapped up comes Farragut North, a drama about a fresh-faced, ruthless Democratic press secretary named Stephen Bellamy (John Gallagher Jr., who won a Tony for his performance in Spring Awakening). Playwright Beau Willimon, who’s worked for senators Schumer, Clinton, and Bradley and on Governor Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, sets his action before the Iowa caucuses, where Stevie’s candidate, Governor Morris, expects to trounce his rival for the nomination, a man named Pullman. Pullman’s campaign manager, Tom (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) tries to hire Stevie away, telling him Morris has no chance—the polling numbers he counts on are lies. “Twenty percent of what you think is your solid support is actually our people posing as Morris supporters.” Tom says. The memory of the time—ending about two weeks ago—when this sort of political paranoia was justified provides a cathartic thrill.
The cast performs with electric energy, as if competing for ratings, and director Doug Hughes (Doubt) keeps them poised, alert, and quick to react and interact. Chris Noth plays Paul Zara (campaign manager for Governor Morris) with bloated, swaggering fervor, slugging back whiskey, popping Tums, and sparring with the media. Isiah Whitlock Jr. (The Wire) smoothly inhabits the role of Tom Duffy, the corrupt campaign manager for Morris’s rival, who toys with Stevie like a lion tormenting a mouse, before taking him out with a lazy swipe of his paw. But the most magnetic player is Olivia Thirlby (Juno), making her stage debut. Her trusting body language, her broad, guileless smile, and her Rossetti hair recall the Julia Roberts of twenty years ago. As Molly, a 19-year-old intern with a power crush on Stevie, she steals the show and the election. In Stevie’s hotel room, Molly gamely tries to make morning-after chitchat, indulging his rudeness as he blathers on his cell phone. She’s “nobody,” Stevie tells the caller. “Just the uh, the cleaning lady.” He soon learns that interns are not so easily brushed off—something you’d think a Democratic political operative wouldn’t need to be told.