Wednesday, July 6, 2011

From Stage to Screen: Peeking at a Political Underbelly

John Gallagher Jr., Chris Noth and Kate Blumberg in Farragut North.

As a “press advance man” for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s presidential bid, Brooklyn playwright Beau Willimon spent the last three months of 2003 crisscrossing Iowa. So it’s hardly surprising his gripping make-believe account of a modern campaign would be set in that Midwestern state. Farragut North, which opened off-Broadway in late 2008, was about back-room machinations and dirty tricks among political operatives.

Yet Willimon, who had stumped for other Democratic candidates in the past, made it clear in an interview three years ago that his piece was not a Deaniac docudrama. “I drew on all those experiences to create a fictional but authentic world,” he said, while sipping orange juice at a cafe in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. “My intention is to present a universal story about power and ambition.”

It also seemed to be a story appropriate for cinema. The action has been relocated to Ohio in the script Willimon wrote after Farragut was optioned by Warner Bros, in conjunction with George Clooney’s production company. Clooney co-adapted and directed the film, now titled The Ides of March, and he also stars, along with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Paul Giamatti and Evan Rachel Wood. It will open the Venice Film Festival on August 31, before an October 7 release.

The dynamic original version, under the aegis of the Atlantic Theater Company, featured Chris Noth of Law & Order fame and John Gallagher, Jr., who won a 2007 Tony Award for his performance in the hit Broadway musical Spring Awakening. The cast included Olivia Thirlby, Ellen Page’s sidekick in Juno, and Isaiah Whitlock, Jr., perhaps best known for HBO’s The Wire. Doug Hughes, the director of Farragut, had earned a 2005 Tony Award for Doubt.

Apart from the Dean connection, the play was linked to Vermont by virtue of Noth’s time as a student at Marlboro College – where he fell in love with acting – and Atlantic’s longtime summer roots in the Green Mountain State. In 1985, the troupe began mounting shows in the capital city of Montpelier, before relocating to Burlington four years later. Their three-week advanced acting course continues to be offered on the University of Vermont campus. Company founders David Mamet and William H. Macy, graduates of Goddard College in Plainfield, still own getaway homes in the area. Artistic director Neil Pepe comes from Putney. While bringing Farragut into the Atlantic fold, however, Pepe never mused about the Howard Dean angle.

“I didn’t think of the play in the context of Vermont,” Pepe said. “I’m interested in whether or not plays can work on their own terms, if the stories are well written, if the characters are developed and if the writers are speaking from the truth of who they are.”

Now a major force in New York theatrical circles, Atlantic was not concerned about 2008’s race for the White House when scheduling Farragut as its season opener. “At first, we wondered if this would be a good thing or a bad thing,” explained Pepe. “But we realized the play is so timely and vital for understanding the notion of what actually goes on behind the scenes, especially after the last eight years in America [under the Bush administration].”

Chris Pine and Chris Noth.

Willimon passed through Burlington briefly while toiling on behalf of Dean, sometimes for 72 sleepless hours at a time. “My job was to organize logistics for the press, but I never spoke to the man in five months,” he recalled. “With advance work, you are supposed to remain invisible.” An example of that invisibility: In New Hampshire, Willimon quietly arranged for a music store to set up a guitar and amp to coincide with a visit from Dean. “We didn’t tell the Governor beforehand but he asked, ‘Should I play something for you all?’ He jammed for a little bit and the reporters loved it.”

A Navy brat raised primarily in St. Louis, Willimon hails from a conservative family but caught the liberal fever early on. “I grew up as a little Republican until private school, where I started reading Marx and Engels,” he acknowledged. “My hair was long. I probably would have fit in perfectly in Vermont.”

At Columbia University, Willimon majored in visual arts and American history. A summer writing program at Yale changed everything before his senior year. The “pretty pictures” he’d been painting suddenly felt empty to him. Words on a page were somehow a more effective route to finding his voice. “I wrote a lot of bad stuff in the beginning,” he noted.

A friend named Jay Carson from Columbia, where Willimon continued as graduate student in playwriting, recruited him for various Democratic efforts: Senator Charles Schumer in 1998, and Senator Hillary Clinton and former Senator Bill Bradley in 2000. Then came the improbable ascendancy of a relative unknown from a sparsely populated corner of New England. Carson, who was Dean’s press secretary, invited Willimon to join the team. “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it. Why not?’ Ten days later, I was in Des Moines.”

Idealism was sweeping Willimon’s generation, a sensibility that Dean embraced as “a firebrand progressive who tapped into a lot of anger that was out there. Willimon remembers a speech by the presidential hopeful asking the party to speak out against the war in Iraq. “It was explosive. And explosive is also what characterized the end – the Iowa scream,” he suggests, referring to Dean’s much-ridiculed whoop after his third-place finish in the 2004 Iowa caucus.

“Every campaign needs to create a narrative,” Willimon contends. “But that narrative of progressive populism came back to bite him in the butt.” This doomed campaign arc is not integral to Farragut North, a title derived from a train station in Washington, DC. The play focuses on a series of fateful encounters and betrayals in Des Moines among five people: the press secretary (Noth), his second-in-command (Gallagher), an enthusiastic new aide (Dan Bittner), a teenage intern (Thirlby), an opponent’s representative (Whitlock), a New York Times reporter (Kate Blumberg) and the waiter in a local watering hole (Otto Sanchez).

The Farragut candidate, identified only by the surname Morris, is never seen or heard. (Not so in the movie, which puts Clooney in that role.) Although his agenda is discussed in broad terms, the dialogue largely centers on the dishonorable behavior of several key people helping him in the primaries. “I didn’t want to write a play about politics but about situations that take place in the world of politics,” Willimon said. “I don’t care if audiences like my characters; they just need to be attracted to them in some way.”

He finally did meet Dean in Connecticut, after the candidate quit the race. “He shook my hand and thanked me,” Willimon recounted “That meant a lot to me. It completed the circle.”

The circle was unbroken with a two-hour show that got a big spread in the Sunday New York Times and began selling out, even during previews. Maybe this was evidence that a long, intense election cycle in real life doesn’t necessarily deter citizens from enjoying a rather bleak view of the democratic process on stage. And artifice is a factor in both realms, according to Willimon: “Politics is theater.”

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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