Irwin Shaw wrote Bury the Dead, a 1936 play now revived by the Transport Group, when he was just 23. Beau Willimon first conceived Farragut North, produced by the Atlantic, at the tender age of 27. (With rare exceptions like Georg Büchner, Shelagh Delaney, or Alfred Jarry, who wrote their best work at 20 or earlier, playwrights don’t come much younger.) Though some 70 years—and considerable variations in theme and tone—separate Shaw and Willimon, they both offer plays by and about young men. Each work concerns men who can’t or won’t grow up.
At once absorbing and facile, Farragut North, drawing on Willimon’s experiences as a Howard Dean campaign worker during the 2004 presidential primaries, follows the changing fortunes of Stephen (John Gallagher Jr.), a primary candidate’s press secretary. Though a journalist calls Stephen “a wizened 25,” he wears his Brooks Brothers suits with all the dash and authority of a bar mitzvah boy—he’s a political veteran but a perpetual adolescent. Arrogant and brainy, he believes he can spin his way out of any situation: He tells a paramour, “You shouldn’t like me. I’m not a good person,” and sounds positively proud.
Like Willimon’s Katrina-set Lower Ninth, Farragut North has a self-consciously Aristotelian structure. As the philosopher dictated, the play “confines itself to a single revolution of the sun” and features a hero undone by his own misjudgment. Under Doug Hughes’s direction, it suffers from some of the same qualities that defeat Stephen: a slick cleverness and a smear of self-satisfaction. And like its lead character, the show lacks an understanding of women: Stephen’s love interest, 19-year-old Molly (a game Olivia Thirlby), seems a product of male fantasy—or perhaps the world is teeming with articulate, buxom, politically engaged teens eager for casual sex.
The ensemble’s strong, but with the exception of Gallagher Jr., most of the actors play a gloss on characters they’ve explored on film and TV. As the campaign manager, Chris Noth offers a paunchier, tobacco-chewing Mr. Big; Isiah Whitlock Jr. revisits the corrupt politico he acted on The Wire; and Thirlby gives a distorted version of the shrewd high-schooler she played in Juno. Perhaps this isn’t accidental: The script has long been optioned by a film company with Leonardo DiCaprio discussed for Stephen’s role. Hughes’s production seems an elongated screen test, though Willimon may not be altogether ready for his close-up.
While Stephen will likely talk himself into a cushy consulting job or a grad-school sinecure, the characters in Bury the Dead lack such pleasant fall-back options. Six men—some as young as 20—are dead, victims of the war “that is to begin tomorrow night.” Though corpses, the men refuse to lie down in their graves. “Maybe there’s too many of us under the ground now,” one soldier muses. “Maybe the earth can’t stand it no more.”
With the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan still rising, such themes seem entirely timely. Apparently, director Joe Calarco doesn’t agree. He’s appended a long and inane introduction to Shaw’s script, a contemporary “town hall meeting,” in which “Our Host” (Donna Lynne Champlin) distributes cookies and organizes a staged reading of Shaw’s play. The conceit’s lamentably forced, but once Calarco drops it, the play doesn’t strain for relevance. Unlike Willimon’s script, which concludes in tones of cynical resignation, Shaw’s ends with a cry for justice, as a soldier’s wife insists, “Tell ’em. Tell ’em all to stand up.” As the applause began, quite a few members of the audience obliged her.