With Farragut North and 1937, dirty tricks and unlikely victories take over local stages 

Richard Nixon's people called it a "ratfuck" — a dirty trick on a rival campaign. Set behind the scenes of a Democratic presidential campaign just prior to the Iowa caucus, Beau Willimon's tense political drama Farragut North springs a beaut of a ratfuck that audiences will enjoy sussing out.

As an evening of pleasant suspense, the play is a hit, especially as directed by John Rensenhouse, who is adept at scenes of alpha males testing their power over each other — what Nixon called "nut cutting." Here, nuts get cut with style and distinction.

In the lively opening scenes, Willimon captures the jet-lagged buzz of a national campaign: the friendships of convenience, the glib amorality, the fine time that officials and reporters savor in spinning each other at the airport bar. That's where the drama begins: four characters on four miserable chairs, arranged in a parody of a Sunday morning political show. (Applause for Valerie Ferguson's set, which is all flags and lonely, wide-open spaces.)

Stephen Bellamy, the 25-year-old press secretary who we're repeatedly told is "the best media man in the country," shares an underhanded campaign story. The impressive Manon Halliburton, as a hard-edged New York Times reporter, serves up her at-times overcooked dialogue as if it were occurring to her naturally. Bruce Roach, as the rumpled campaign manager, is laconic but alive with memorable detail.

At the center is Mark Thomas' Bellamy, who starts the show as a charming rogue, a silver-tongued manipulator given to intrigues but who's really no bigger a bastard than most in his field. As the campaign becomes desperate, his soul is at stake. But halfway through the second act, Willimon reveals that this guy has no soul worth testing.

From then on, all complexity is gone. Bellamy commits some act of villainy every couple of minutes; not only is he lacking humanity but he's also missing the snaky charm that is his dominant trait. Thomas is either cool or boiling, switching from one to the other without showing us the states in between. Perhaps to make up for the character's increasing simplicity, Willimon actually has him beseech the heavens, like Oedipus or Dr. Frankenstein, hollering that he's a monster.

Somehow, I doubt that Karl Rove ever did that.


Off Broadway's 1937: One Helluva Year is a rousing, goofy, poetic, generous, encyclopedic, musical grab bag that's all politics — to the detriment of character, dialogue and story, all of which only usher us to the next picket line, the next strike-breaker assault, the next union triumph.

That's not a complaint. More a community pageant than a drama, 1937 lets the folks from the Locals sing, dance and cheer through long-gone labor history. In loosely connected vignettes, writer Bill Clause and director Judy Clause give us the headlines in a didactic style reminiscent of leftist theater of the year he's toasting. In Kansas City, we see the organization of African-American porters, the first sit-down strike against a Ford plant, Tom Pendergast at work, and a chatty crowd at a Monarchs game.

We also visit New York City for rehearsals of Pins and Needles, an International Ladies Garment Workers Union revue that, like this one, starred spirited amateurs. Later, an intentionally monotonous dance number illustrates the endless grind of assembly-line work.

I caught 1937 in a packed house, mostly union people who greeted each unlikely labor victory with as much applause as they gave the song-and-dance numbers.

All that good feeling got me through the rough spots. Dropped lines and sudden blackouts coming from the Clauses' gutsy amateurs were oddly endearing, and only toward the end did I notice that the running time had stretched north of two hours.

A couple of experienced ringers round out the cast. Playing a porter who discovers the union, the charismatic Darrell L. Johnson handles the show's only real narrative arc, a conversion story in the style of Depression-era labor dramas. Kelly Pedoto tap-dances divertingly and glows on cue, and Brenda McClain finds laughs where none are written. But in a celebration of collective action, individual performances are hardly the point. Here's a show that talks of solidarity and actually achieves it.

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