May 19, 2011 at 4:07 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Power play

‘Farragut North’
Through May 29
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Maryland

Bruce Nelson, left, as Paul Zara, and Danny Yoerges as Stephen Bellamy in ‘Farragut North,’ on the boards now at Olney Theatre Center. (Photo by Stan Barouh; courtesy of Olney)

Named for the Metro station where lobbyists exit to their offices, Beau Willimon’s “Farragut North” offers a brief but unfiltered peek into the seamy world of politics.

Currently playing in Olney’s intimate Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre, this inside-the-Beltway story set in the Midwest follows power, lust and loyalty (or lack thereof) on the campaign trail. It’s freezing winter in Iowa and as the Democratic caucuses draw near, presidential campaigns begin to really heat up. The play focuses on 24 crucial hours in the goings-on of the campaign of Gov. Morris (whom we never meet), one of the Democratic nominee hopefuls.

The action kicks off in a Des Moines hotel bar. Over drinks, 25-year-old wunderkind press secretary Stephen Bellamy is busily regaling a small party with a tale from his short but marvelous (and sometimes shady) career. Seems when he was just starting out, Stephen helped his candidate win the election by falsely painting the opponent as an anti-Semite. His avid listeners – a New York Times political reporter Ida Horowicz (a wonderfully cold-blooded Susan Lynskey); Ben (Kevin Hasser), his newbie assistant; and Stephen’s boss, campaign manager Paul Zara played by Bruce Nelson who is gay – nod approvingly and chime-in occasionally as they thoroughly enjoy the sordid war story

Certain that his man is going to take Iowa (and eventually the nomination), Stephen is supremely confident, annoyingly so, but things begin to change when political veteran Tom Duffy, a rival candidate’s campaign manager asks Stephen for a meeting. Duffy, quietly played by excellent Olney veteran Alan Wade, leaks to Stephen that Morris is in fact not going to take Iowa or any other states (thanks to a host of dirty tricks) and suggests that Stephen jump ship ASAP. Complicating matters, Stephen gets involved with Molly (Elizabeth Ness), a sexually available young intern, and loses the support of the confreres whom he mistakenly thought were his friends. Meanwhile, it becomes apparent to Stephen that Ben, the earnest but promising gofer, has an eye on his job.

Playwright Willimon knows of what he speaks: Prior to penning plays, he worked in politics. His career kicked off as a volunteer for Charles Schumer’s first campaign in the Senate in 1998, and later included campaigns for Hillary Clinton and Bill Bradley. He was a press aide for Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. As noted in the show’s program, Willimon stresses the play isn’t entirely a political drama. Its theme of could happen anywhere from Hollywood to a Home Depot.

Directed by Clay Hopper, the production moves briskly and is tidily staged. Hopper has elicited terrific performances from a fine cast that thoroughly understands its characters. Though the play is predictable – tragic hero scales heights, is overcome by own pride, and falls – it’s still fun to watch unfold. There is however a glaring flaw: If Stephen is in fact young Karl Rove savvy, why is he so easily caught in the first trap set for him? Yes, he’s tenacious and ultimately proves a street fighting survivor, but would a political prodigy of Stephen’s rank prove such easy quarry?

Yoerges plays Stephen with energy and likability that make his brilliant success all the more plausible while Nelson’s low-key Zara shows glimpses of anxiety and insecurity churning beneath a seemingly even-keeled surface. (Of course, Zara’s constant tobacco chewing and bad digestion are also a hint that all’s not well with him.)

Set designer Cristina Todesco’s neutrally colored panels on wheels combined with a few metal chairs and tables perfectly capture the essence of blah chain hotels and interchangeable bars and eateries encountered along the campaign trail. Ivania Stack dresses the cast in spot on street clothes from the campaign manager’s baseball cap and hunting jacket to the young communication director’s generically nice blue suit.

Politics is a dirty job but somebody has to do it, and here Olney acquits itself well.

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