This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Aaron Sorkin has only written four plays, but his writing style has influenced countless authors since his third play, A Few Good Men, became a hit on Broadway back in 1989 and later became a widely seen (and quoted) motion picture.
Sorkin will forever be remembered for the line "You can't handle the truth" but his writing as a whole — whether its been for the stage or The West Wing — stands out because he feels his audience can handle the truth. Sorkin's signature is making dense, politically themed material digestible to mass audiences.
I mention this because two new politically charged plays running on L.A.'s Westside this summer both qualify as decidedly "Sorkin-esque." The first, titled Farragut North, calls to mind Sorkin because its young playwright has a similar ear for Beltway banter and an equally shrewd sense of the right balance of sex and strategy.
Farragut North is a story about a young hot shot politico — a character who would likely be played by Tom Cruise had it been written 20 years ago. Instead, Stephen Bellamy is played at the Geffen by Chris Pine, the actor who plays the young Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek movie. Pine is the reason Farragut North is a hot ticket — but he's not just doing a star turn. Sure, Pine knows how to look good and ooze cockiness, but on stage he also is equally assured at conveying confusion and weakness. He's unafraid of getting just as ugly as his character when things start to go sour during the Iowa primary that provides Farragut North's setting.
Beau Willimon is the writer and his scenes zip by, thanks to some careful plotting and sharp wordplay. The political maneuvering and backstabbing feels fresh and believable, which makes sense given that Willimon worked in Iowa for Howard Dean's campaign back in 2004.
The knock on Farragut North is that it's just another political expose and that what it reveals — politics is just a game — is no real revelation. The title is a Chinatown-like reference to a place that is more a state of mind than a neighborhood: Farragut North represents being outside of the central ring of Washington's power structure.
What makes Willimon's play stand out is its portrait of someone who at the age of 25 already fears retirement and obsolecence — and the implication that this is now the norm in any competitive field in America. Chris Pine portrays this fear honestly and makes it as palpable as it is ridiculous and tragic. Farragut North could be about any industry; its themes are that simple and easy to recognize. That it's set in the world of politics, gives it extra sizzle. Aaron Sorkin would no doubt be proud.
There's less sizzle in Paul Leaf's new courtroom drama, Mutiny at Port Chicago, but still plenty of Sorkin in this story of a Navy munitions base in Northern California, staffed with underpaid Black seamen, that exploded in 1944, killing 320 men, America's largest domestic loss of life in WWII.
Leaf's play can't help but call to mind A Few Good Men or Herman Wouk's classic The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, however its structure doesn't simply follow the trial. It attempts to bring us into the world of the black sailors in Act I, but only in Act II does the play start to come together, when the Daniel Kaffee-esque defense counsel emerges. The cast is uneven, but J. Teddy Garces stands out as the unlikely leader of the trumped-up mutiny. The story of Port Chicago is fascinating; the play however, needs a polish. Maybe Mr. Sorkin is available?
Mutiny at Port Chicago runs through August 15 at the Ruskin Group Theatre, Farragut North runs through Sunday at the Geffen Playhouse.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Banner image: (L) Maury Sterling and J. Teddy Garces in Mutiny at Port Chicago; Photo: Amy Jacobson
(R) Chris Pine and Chris Noth in Farragut North; Photo by Michael Lamont