November 20, 2009

The Spin Doctor is in
by Greg Boyle

The Unicorn continues to burnish its well-deserved reputation of offering entertainment that challenges the viewer with its newest offering, Farragut North by Beau Willimon. Set in the frigid cold of an Iowa caucus winter this political drama gives us an insider’s view of the Machiavellian intrigues that go into the making of a presidential candidate.

Playwright Willimon learned firsthand of these shenanigans while working on the campaign of Howard Dean, which so memorably imploded after his loss in Iowa, followed by the infamous “Dean scream.” The incident itself was blown so far out of proportion with continual media replay that it was a factor in his subsequent dropping out of the race. Willimon combined characters he met and situations he observed during that time in creating this play.

The show is the first of three joint ventures this season between the Unicorn and the UMKC Theatre Department. It allows local audiences a better opportunity to witness the high quality of the young performers and backstage personnel from that graduate level program.

Bruce Roach as Paul and Mark Thomas as Stephen in Farragut North. (photo by Cynthia Levin, courtesy of Unicorn Theatre)

The central character of Farragut North is Steve Bellamy, a whiz-kid press secretary. He has a special gift for the job and a reputation men twice his age would trade their souls for. It is a true love/hate relationship between Steve and the press corps, because he uses and manipulates them, all the while giving them what they crave. 

The show opens with a bawdy late night scene in a hotel bar. We meet Steve and his campaign manager Paul, as well as Ida, a political columnist with the New York Times. In addition to those three, there is Ben, a diffident media intern. We learn right away that these people are arrogant, vulgar and love to brag of their successes. But what else would we expect? Whenever power and money interact, people will stop believing that rules apply to them.

Farragut North should be labeled a tragedy because it fits the theatrical criteria. It features high-ranking characters, large moral questions and a downfall brought on by a character’s own strengths and foibles.

On the brink of his greatest triumph, Steve stands to lose everything. His pride leads him to make a small mistake in judgment and the ramifications are magnified by the god-like media. If Shakespeare were writing today, his Macbeth would look and sound like this. Luckily, Farragut North is much easier to watch and understand. Just as in Shakespeare, the characters are ambitious, witty, verbose and more than a little paranoid. However, they possess none of the qualities that they demand in others. The path to power might be less blood soaked in the 21st century than the 10th, but it is just as twisted and sinister. Why should we believe the things we are told by those seeking office? Yet we always do, because we need to. Something in us wants and needs our leaders to be greater than we are.

Mark Thomas as Steve is absolutely convincing as the spin-doctor phenom. His moods range all over the map, and we understand why each arose. Bruce Roach’s quirky campaign manager gives us a few laughs along the way, just as he did in Winesburg Ohio at the Rep. Manon Halliburton’s Ida is spot-on as the ambitious journalist, and Kat Endsley plays the sex kitten Molly with perfect innocence and charm. Sam Cordes gives us a very good sense of what the challenges and abuse that face a lowly intern. He is our Macduff. Ben is still in the earliest stages of True Believer. We can see that he will graduate into a cynic in time. That cynical character is personified by Robert Elliott as Tom Duffy, the campaign manager of an opponent’s campaign. Elliott’s very body language reflects the physical and moral fatigue that go along with the job. Herbert Moore ably plays the fill-in characters of the Waiter and Frank.

The title Farragut North refers to a stop on the Washington DC Metro line where most of the lobbyists and consultants have their offices. It is the ultimate destination of all the politicos in this piece, sooner or later, because no one bitten by the political bug ever seems to be able to leave DC. The sound designer Merlin James Alexandre Salisbury has the sound of subway trains during scene changes, and the sound gets louder and louder as our main character’s career lurches toward the end.

Farragut North is a terrific show, especially for political junkies. Well acted and designed, it is a fine evening of theatre, playing through Dec. 13. For tickets, contact the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main Street, by calling the box office at 816-531-7529, or go online at

Greg Boyle can be reached at