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A political drama with powerful ambitions

Playwright saw the back-room spin on the campaign trail

Beau Willimon says the subject of his play 'Farragut North' 'is not politics; that's just the world it takes place in.' Beau Willimon says the subject of his play "Farragut North" "is not politics; that's just the world it takes place in." (Joe Tabacca for The Boston Globe)
By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / April 25, 2010

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NEW YORK — From the John Edwards baby-mama drama to Rod Blagojevich’s alleged peddling of a Senate seat, evidence abounds of the runaway ambition, towering hubris, and insatiable thirst for power that can infect political leaders.

In his back-room election drama, “Farragut North,’’ playwright Beau Willimon explores such themes with a tale of scheming spinmeisters on the national campaign trail. The play, which premiered off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company in fall 2008, makes its local debut starting Friday at the Boston Center for the Arts, courtesy of Zeitgeist Stage Company.

“The play is about people who become so entrenched in the political process that they ultimately find themselves working day in and day out for the pure joy of winning, not necessarily for the platform that their candidate is propagating,’’ observes the boyish-looking Willimon, 33, during a recent interview at a restaurant in Brooklyn, where he lives. “The play is not about the issues of a political campaign, but rather the gamesmanship of the campaign and how that affects the characters’ choices and the sacrifices they’re willing to make morally in order to win.’’

Set in Des Moines, in the weeks leading up to Iowa’s statewide caucuses, “Farragut North’’ centers on Stephen Bellamy, a charming, fast-rising, 25-year-old press secretary for a Howard Dean-like insurgent presidential hopeful. When the play opens, Stephen and his boss, campaign manager Paul Zara, are trying hard to spin a New York Times journalist named Ida, while she pumps them for information about their candidate’s next move. Meanwhile, Stephen’s ambitious deputy hovers in the background, as does an enigmatic young intern. As the play progresses, the dirty tricks, power plays, and shady deals escalate, and Stephen’s idealism and loyalties are tested.

The off-Broadway production, which starred Chris Noth (“Sex and the City’’) and John Gallagher Jr. (“American Idiot’’), took place during the height of the 2008 presidential campaign and capitalized on the public’s intense fascination with the election. “Farragut’’ was subsequently staged last spring in Los Angeles, with “Star Trek’’ heartthrob Chris Pine in the lead. And its hot-property status was cemented when Warner Brothers announced it was teaming with George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio to develop a possible movie version, based on a script Willimon wrote.

Willimon, who has written about 10 full-length plays, had plenty of personal experience to draw on for “Farragut.’’ He was a volunteer on Charles Schumer’s first campaign for the Senate in 1998, and a press aide for Dean’s 2004 campaign; he also worked on campaigns for Hillary Clinton and Bill Bradley.

“The play draws heavily on my experiences on the Dean campaign, but also other campaigns that I’ve worked on,’’ he says. “All the characters in the play are fictional. They’re an amalgamation of different people that I came across.’’

Indeed, the protagonist’s ascent echoes the speedy rise of Willimon’s close friend Jay Carson, now the chief deputy mayor of Los Angeles. Carson served as national spokesman for the Dean campaign, Hillary Clinton’s presidential nomination campaign, and former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. But Willimon insists that Carson is not the model for Stephen, even if he drew inspiration from his friend’s experience.

“Because Jay was working in the upper echelons of the Dean campaign, I was able to get my in-the-trenches perspective and also his inner-sanctum perspective,’’ says the sandy-haired Willimon, who is dressed casually and is focused yet personable in conversation.

In recent years, Zeitgeist Stage has shown a penchant for staging political plays, from Robert William Sherwood’s “Spin’’ to David Hare’s “Stuff Happens.’’

“As a nation we’ve always been interested — obsessed perhaps — by the duality of the personal and the political. Look at how the press follows Michelle Obama almost as much as they do the president,’’ says David Miller, Zeitgeist artistic director. “We’re interested in what makes these powerful men and women tick.’’

Willimon recalls crew members reading the election-night returns at intermission during the 2008 off-Broadway run, and Gallagher coming out for the curtain call and announcing that Barack Obama had captured Ohio.

“The whole theater erupted in applause,’’ Willimon says. “Still, I’ve always contended, and will argue to my dying breath, that I think the play works and can exist outside of any one particular election.’’ In fact, Willimon is loathe to classify “Farragut North’’ as a purely political drama: “I’ve always told people that the subject of the play is not politics; that’s just the world it takes place in. The themes of the play can translate to any number of worlds. It could be Wall Street; it could be Hollywood; it could be a hospital or Home Depot.’’

Born in Washington, D.C., Willimon is a self-described “Navy brat’’ whose family moved from Hawaii to San Francisco to Philadelphia before settling in St. Louis when he was 10. While he acted in plays and took theater classes in high school, painting was his first love. He double-majored in visual art and history at Columbia University but “hit a wall’’ as he neared the end of his undergraduate days.

“I could make facile, pretty-looking paintings that would impress people,’’ he says. “But they just felt like lies to me.’’

After graduation, he audited a playwrighting class at Columbia and was encouraged by the instructor, Eduardo Machado, to apply for an MFA in playwrighting under his tutelage. He was accepted and spent three years “writing lots of bad stuff and learning what my voice was.’’ He then enrolled in the prestigious two-year fellowship in playwrighting at Juilliard.

“Writing plays supplied for me everything that painting didn’t, which is the ability to tell stories in real time, in a real space, in three dimensions, in flesh and blood,’’ he says. “I realized I had been trying to cram all this narrative into my paintings, but ultimately painting was a static medium. So it just opened up this whole new door.’’

Another door — this one to Hollywood — sprang open with “Farragut.’’ Warner Brothers enlisted him to write a film adaptation. Since then he’s penned several screenplays and an unproduced TV pilot for AMC set on a plantation during the Civil War, and he’s currently adapting a Danish film thriller. He says his experience in Hollywood has been largely positive, mostly because he can now support himself.

“There were many years when I was hand-to-mouth and didn’t know how I was gonna make rent. I’ve done every job under the sun, from busing tables, temping, and working in factories to SAT prep and detailing cars,’’ says Willimon. “So to be able to make a living where all I do is write is absolutely liberating.’’

FARRAGUT NORTH Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company at Plaza Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, Friday through May 22. Tickets: $20-$30. 617-933-8600, www.zeitgeiststage.com