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Port City Playhouse Delivers Taut Political Thriller

Area Premiere of "Farragut North" at Lee Center.

No need to wait for the movie, or for that matter, the first professional production. In what is its tightest and most effective production in quite a while, Port City Playhouse is presenting the area premiere of the play "Farragut North" months before the cameras start rolling on the screen adaptation George Clooney is reported to be directing next year or the play is mounted on the professional stage at Olney in Maryland.

In something of a coup, Port City has the play now and it is giving it a satisfyingly staged performance with a solid cast under the fine direction of Eddie Page who keeps the pace brisk without seeming to hurry any moment or suffer any lulls as the story proceeds from set up to climax.

The play, about the moral challenges facing a young press spokesman for a presidential candidate during an early primary, is by Beau Willimon, who was a young press aide for a presidential candidate in the early primaries two elections back. Willimon has not written about the political issues involved but the pressures of the campaign trail and the snap decisions that must be made on too little sleep with too little time to consider the implications.

Director Page comes over to the Port City Playhouse for his first play after working both on stage and off at several local theaters including the Little Theatre of Alexandria, Aldersgate Church Community Theatre. His is a refreshingly crisp touch, moving the scenes along at a clip that keeps the audience’s attention focused on the story rather than on the production. With the assistance of set designer Robin Parker, he uses just as much of the Nannie J. Lee Center’s excessively big stage as he needs to in order to tell the story without excessive time being required to switch sets. This is particularly important for this play as it switches between locations for four scenes in the first act and five in the second. None of the changeovers require as much as 30 seconds, so the flow of the story isn’t interrupted and the evening spins along nicely.

Adam Downs plays the 25-year-old press secretary who is out-foxed by Cal Whitehurst as an older and wiser practitioner of hard-ball back-room maneuvering. Faced with a young and effective opponent, Whitehurst lures Downs into a compromising position with tempting advances, knowing full well that by merely discussing his offer the youngster would become tainted.

Downs‘ performance is notable as he progresses from self-impressed whiz kid through stages. First he’s concerned, then worried and finally trapped as he strikes out in desperation. Whitehurst, on the other hand, retains a constant polish on the surface while revealing the machinations of his character’s thought processes that would make Machiavelli either blush or preen.

Dan Beck shows more than just surface composure and assurance as the experienced campaign manager, and Shelagh Roberts throws a few sharp barbs into otherwise light banter as a New York Times reporter who sees virtue in applying pressure in pursuit of "the story." Tabitha Rymal plays a 19-year-old intern for whom the 25-year-old press secretary is "an older man" while Eric Herrison lends his off-kilter grin to the proceedings as another 19-year-old staff member on the campaign. In the early going, that grin seems simply clueless charm but by the end it is a knowing acknowledgement of a political ploy that worked.

Port City is using a touch of celebrity casting through the run of the show. Selected performance feature different politicians of note as the bartender in the first scene. That scene may well take place in a bar, but the bartender has no lines of dialogue. This past weekend on one night it was former Congressman Tom Davis and on another former Senator Mike Gravel behind the bar. On Sept. 24 it will be Alexandria City Councilman Frank Fannon and on the 25th, local politician and Clinton fundraiser Lonnie Rich. Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille will bartend on Oct. 1 and Congressman Jim Moran has tentatively confirmed his availability for the final performance on Oct. 3.

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Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.