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Like politics, there’s a lot to like and dislike about ‘Farragut North’

Politics makes you gag, doesn’t it? It’s a gross, slimy, bilious fact.

Beau Willimon’s “Farragut North” pulls back a tiny corner of a presidential campaign’s blood-soaked veil. It covers a mere 24 hours in the week before the crucial Iowa caucus, an epic time for an embattled campaign staff. But it feels even grander than that. It plays as opera, except it’s far too close to a documentary.

Road Less Traveled Theater stages the Western New York premiere of Willimon’s play, with direction by Scott Behrend. It is an effective production of a passionate script, dense with argumentative dialogue and emotional pressure points. It hits all the major landmines; you might wince and squirm in your seat at the onset of its truth bombs.

But there are rough edges here that need trimming, mostly surrounding Behrend’s staging and his cast’s performances. All the flammable ingredients are there, campaign staffers’ wicks dripping with desperation, the opposition’s threat of infiltration, but there are too few sparks to set it all ablaze.

Some of this is Willimon’s doing, in telling a story that by now (and even in 2008, when it premiered) doesn’t shock so much. (Thanks, America.) Willimon can be thanked for adapting the British version of TV’s “House of Cards” for American audiences, casting Kevin Spacey as a repulsive state representative. It’s been said that “Farragut North” is Willimon’s precursor to his “House of Cards,” much in the same way “The American President” was Aaron Sorkin’s first draft of “The West Wing.”

Willimon, who previously worked on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign and for Sen. Chuck Schumer and then-Senate-hopeful Hillary Clinton, has certainly seen his fair share of Washington back doors. Which is why it’s surprising that his plot’s major pivots come off as too elementary for a sophisticated political audience. (Spoiler alert: there’s an intern.)

But Behrend, the company’s artistic director, produces the show at just the right moment in both the theater and campaign seasons. (Those are two different things, right?) The timeliness amid the current primary battles – the exact stage of the play’s action – make up for some of the script’s weaknesses, though I’m curious how contentious it would feel in the off-season.

There are concerns on the stage as well as the page. There’s a lot to like about each actor involved, their ability to keep up with fairly dense dialogue, quick scene changes and political jargon that I’m not convinced politicians are always fluent in. Everybody keeps up in this marathon, much to their credit. But Behrend loses out on opportunities to punctuate and pierce their breakneck speed with human syncopation. (A devout “West Wing” fan, I also longed for a walk-and-talk amid these sit-and-spits.)

Richard Satterwhite plays campaign manager Paul Zara with an ideal balance of depth and height. He grasps the rhythm of these conversations, showing constraint against intuition and rage against tact. He also looks presidential, which, despite his playing not the candidate, provides an aspirational quality to this ensemble.

Peter Johnson is the star here, playing public relations director Stephen Bellamy. It is his faulty axis on which everything spins, and ultimately unfurls. Johnson has fiery energy, but again, Behrend does not pace it well enough. What revelations we’d find in his characterization if we were to see him unsure just once. His fear converts almost exclusively to volume, but silence is often a louder tool.

Danica Riddick and Victoria Pérez offer suitable if presentational performances as the intern and a New York Times reporter, respectively. Pérez is especially engaging and appealing, though I’m not sure journalists smile that much. Riddick rides the perilous wave of being 19 and steps away from a major national spotlight. She underplays her youthfulness, to the detriment of her character’s powerlessness. She’s as much a pawn as we are.

In contrast, Dave Hayes, as a particularly soulless opponent, and Steve Brachman, a lowly but attentive junior staffer, give more definitive performances that help to articulate how strange and vile these people really are.

Looking at the math, despite a few leads, victory isn’t quite presumed. No matter how you slice it, this adds to something just south of an epiphany.

Theater Review

“Farragut North”

2.5 stars (out of 4)
At Road Less Traveled Theater, 500 Pearl St. Runs through May 22 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $35 to $20. Info: roadlesstraveledproductions.org, 626-3069

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