Photos - Jodie Hutchinson
The great acting, direction and attention to detail audiences have come to expect from Red Stitch nevertheless can't save Farragut North from being a jumble of twists and turns and underdeveloped characters.
Beau Willimon's play is the story of two days in a US presidential campaign in which plans backfire and lives unravel, but the political machine soullessly rolls on regardless. It centres on the character Steve (Brett Cousins), a 25-year-old superconfident spin doctor who's been in politics since he was 15. It's tempting to describe him as brash, but this is an American play after all and the word is more or less redundant. After the play opens with Steve recounting his favourite war-stories to his underenthused colleagues and promising that this will be his best campaign yet, the stage is set for a reckoning and indeed the rot quickly sets in.
The plot is clever and full of surprises and dirty tricks. Willimon is good at staying one step in front of the audience, perhaps not surprising for a man who is a veteran political campaigner himself (he has worked on campaigns for Hillary Clinton, Bill Bradley, Chuck Schumer and Howard Dean.) But while politics is his native profession, scriptwriting isn't. You're never quite sure how the play will end, but the problem is that you don't really care either.
That's the fault of the characters, most of whom give the sense of being merely functionaries in service of the plot. Whether the New York Times journalist trying to bolster her own reputation, the burnt-out but loyal campaign manager, the smart, sassy intern who uses her looks to get in the game, or the quiet but impressionable rookie headed for bigger things, you know these characters. You've seen them before dozens of times and cared about their lives, their exploits, their little foibles. In Farragut North though they simply exist as tokens on the board to be moved around as the story advances.
This is not a criticism of the actors, who do their best to draw you in and occasionally succeed. Special mention must go to Lucy Honigman as Molly the intern for bringing the most humanity to the performance - her scenes are by far the most natural, enjoyable and engaging. Mention must also go to Tim Potter as Ben the rookie, who has the fewest lines but the most presence and for my money is the best character in the play. Brett Cousins as Steve has more lines than anyone else put together and really the entire play rests on his shoulders. A Red Stitch regular, Cousins is an accomplished actor with several notable TV credits and seasons with the Bell Shakespeare Company and the Australian Shakespeare Company under his belt. His performance here is solid but his range is sadly limited by the material.
It's not that Farragut North is actually a bad play. One feels that with practice, Willimon could craft writing of the caliber of David Mamet, who appears to be his inspiration. As it stands, Farragut's dialogue is fast and full of political jargon, but not finessed with the style or the language that makes characters convincingly human. There is an art to using jargon too. It must be written in a way such that the audience understands what is meant by it even if they don't know the term. This makes us feel smart and in-the-know rather than confused and alienated. But while everyone conceivably may have heard of stump speeches and Super Tuesday, it's hard to believe that anyone but political tragics such as myself would be familiar with the arcane and frankly ridiculous presidential primary process, the order of the states, the difference between caucus states, closed primaries and open primaries or their significance for presidential campaigns. Red Stitch helpfully provided a glossary of most unfamiliar terms in the program, but if the writing was better they wouldn't have had to. The play opened in the US just after Barack Obama was elected, and perhaps Willimon was counting on some retained knowledge of the system by audiences still high on election-buzz.
Perhaps. Who knows? Maybe the whole thing is an outlet for Willimon, torn between the moral high ground and doing whatever it takes to win. In the middle of all the dirty tricks, certainly the most convincing exchange in the play is a shocked Steve saying 'this is the sort of shit the Republicans pull', followed by the older, wiser campaigner who replies 'it's about time we learned from them.' It's funny, but mostly it's wistful, ambivalent and raw. And that's Farragut North.
Red Stitch presents
by Beau Willimon
Directed by Kim Durban
Venue: Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Rear, 2 Chapel St, St Kilda
Previews: Wednesday 3 & Thursday 4 February
Season: Friday 5 February - Saturday 6 March
Times: Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 6.30pm
Bookings: (03) 9533 8083 or www.redstitch.net