With a masterly sleight of hand, Nathan Lane turns slightness into giddy fun in "November," David Mamet's impeccably politically incorrect tale of a US president in pollster hell.
Not that all the credit belongs to Broadway's current maestro of the aggressive put-down and the aggrieved double-take. Much the same virtuosity is shown by a suavely buttoned-down Dylan Baker and a hysterically buttoned-up Laurie Metcalf, all three directed with metronomic brilliance by Joe Mantello.
To be sure, this is minor Mamet, little more than an extended revue sketch so replete with his signature F-word that its use begins to sound like an electoral slogan comparable to "change." But though Mamet's laughs are pretty easy stuff - some hit, some miss - they provide a few political jibes for a seasonably political time.
The play's unlikely hero is Charles H.P. Smith (Lane), such a lame-duck turkey of a president that a politically minded Perdue could call him fowl.
We meet him in the waning days of his disastrous presidency, before common justice - plus lack of funds - pulls down the shutter on his first term a week or so before the impossibly slender possibility of his re-election to a second.
"November" is less a political satire or comedy than a farce that has one joke: a deadbeat president so dead and beaten that his crumpled gallantry in the hungry jaws of disaster becomes oddly appealing.
It functions on two propositions: that a second-term candidacy might revive itself with a last-gasp infusion of $200 million for TV airtime from the turkey-manufacturers lobby (itself trying to prevent the end of Thanksgiving as we know it), and second, that a president might seek to establish a legacy by sanctioning same-sex marriage.
Mamet has smartly realized that farce needs few characters, and can even - as long as sex isn't in play - do without a multiplicity of doors. Unlike comedy, it doesn't even need a banana skin.
All it demands are clowns. Mamet has provided them, and Mantello has set their clockwork gorgeously running.
The more I see of Lane, the more appealing I find him. He wears comedy like a suit of armor, with a few essential chinks (Mamet would have made a joke out of that) of reality peeking through like sunshine.
Here - his eyebrows triumphally arched as ever, body language as self-confident as a toy bulldozer and his accent as New Yorkese as the Brooklyn Bridge in a fire sale - he occupies the stage like a fitted carpet.
He carries Mamet's joke with an ease that would be insolent were it not for its lurking sense of unease. And his physicality - crossing the stage one moment with the mad waddle of a gay, strutting turkey - is simply masterly.
Baker, as Archer Brown, the White House Counsel, has just the right slippery amorality that we love to invest in our images of backstage political gofer-honchos, those suave greasers of bureaucratic wheels.
As the president's chief speechwriter, Clarice Bernstein - a lesbian mother with a terrible cold, newly returned from China with a baby girl and possibly bird flu - Metcalf threatens to take over the play every time she makes the sniffle of an appearance.
There's not much to "November," but it's certainly not the cruelest month. Actually, it's empty-headed political fun, "Saturday Night Live" at its liveliest.
You may have been wondering just how all those gagmeisters who make their livings contributing jokes to television talk show monologues and sketch reviews have been occupying their time during the long-lived writers’ strike. Well, one possibility would be that they have been funneling their one-liners — and not always their best ones — directly to David Mamet.
This is probably not really the case, since Mr. Mamet is a writer famous for doing things his way, or sneering in quotable contempt when forced to do otherwise. But in “November,” his glib and jaunty new play about a sitting president, which opened on Thursday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, darned if his way doesn’t sound an awful lot like Jay Leno’s way.
President to his lawyer, regarding his rock-bottom poll numbers: “What is it about me that people don’t like?” Lawyer: “That you’re still here.”
President on possibility of being exposed for illegal acts: “I can resign tomorrow and my vice president — what’s his name? — will pardon me for crimes yet uninvented.”
Lawyer to president: “We can’t build the fence to keep out the illegal immigrants.”
President: “Why not?”
Lawyer: “You need the illegal immigrants to build the fence.”
Heard these before? So, I imagine, had most of the folks with whom I saw the show, which stars Nathan Lane (as the cheerfully corrupt, torture-happy president) and Laurie Metcalf (as his loyal, lesbian speechwriter). But that didn’t stop the audience from providing a wall-to-wall laugh track.
I suspect that people who tittered uneasily during the recent Broadway revival of the Mamet masterwork “Glengarry Glen Ross” are guffawing with side-slapping gusto during this production, which also stars Dylan Baker (as the president’s lawyer) and is directed by Joe Mantello. Maybe it’s because there’s a dearth of new scripted television comedy.
But even more, I think, “November” allows mainstream theatergoers to feel comfortable with Mr. Mamet in a way they haven’t before. After all, with George W. Bush’s own poll status bidding fair to rival “Gandhi’s cholesterol numbers” (as the play puts it), and headlines regularly promising new accounts of bad behavior in high places, much of America is on the same cynical page when it comes to national politics. The first glimpse of the Oval Office (rendered for the stage by Scott Pask) is enough to set off giggles.
“November,” which portrays Mr. Lane’s character, Charles Smith, as an unpopular president up for re-election, might have been an act of daring four years ago, when Mr. Bush was running for a second term. But in the twilight of his executive tenure, the American presidency has become a fish in a barrel for everybody’s target practice.
Despite the thick swarm of obscenities that are de rigueur in a Mamet play, there’s nothing remotely shocking about “November.” If the play had been acted in the old Mamet tradition of louts stewing broodingly in homicidal rage and exasperation, it would probably be more unsettling when the president disgorges racist, sexist and xenophobic diatribes.
But, hey, it’s Nathan Lane playing the president. Everybody loves Nathan, with his leprechaun smile, semaphore eyebrows and “how-sweet-it-is” inflections. People wind up rooting for Charles Smith even at his nastiest, the same way they once rooted for Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker or W. C. Fields as W. C. Fields.
Mr. Mantello, who directed the superb revival of “Glengarry Glenn Ross” three years ago, also directed Mr. Lane in the most recent revival of Neil Simon’s “Odd Couple.” And it’s the Neil Simon mode that prevails here. The production has the air of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch retro-styled to resemble a Sid Caesar comedy revue of the 1950s.
In other words, “November” is a David Mamet play for people who don’t like David Mamet. Being a long-time Mamet devotee, I cannot say I see this as a cause for rejoicing. Finding the singular Mamet voice (I mean, other than in its “#@$+*!” verbal punctuation) requires hard listening.
If you keep your ears peeled, you’ll be rewarded by passages that confirm Mr. Mamet’s enduring fascination with language as a shield and weapon. The speeches that Clarice Bernstein, Ms. Metcalf’s character, comes up with impromptu for her boss are smooth, canny embodiments of the seductive spiels that Americans can’t help falling for during campaign season. The president respects Bernstein (as he calls her), despite her “loathsome and abominable” sexual practices, because she’s a pro. You sense that Mr. Mamet feels the same way about her verbal facility.
Mostly, though, “November” — which also features Michael Nichols as one mad Indian chieftain and a winningly understated Ethan Phillips as a representative of turkey by-products manufacturers — is played as an easy laugh machine, with lines thrown buoyantly into the audience like brightly striped beach balls.
Mr. Lane, it goes without saying, knows exactly how to pitch such lines, with a time-honed style that allows him to put the maximum spin on poisonous zingers and still keep the audience on his side. He doesn’t create a real character here. (And he’s certainly capable of complex portraiture, as he demonstrated in plays like “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” and “Mizlansky/Zilinsky.”) But character, in any sense, isn’t called for in “November.”
Ms. Metcalf, a fine actress, does a variation on the doormat character she played for years on “Roseanne,” and does it well. Mr. Baker — who appeared earlier this season in a Mamet-play manqué, Theresa Rebeck’s “Mauritius” — keeps the requisite straight man’s straight face, even as the farce climbs into stratospheric absurdity.
For “November” features subplots — involving the rights of Thanksgiving turkeys, the Indians’ claims on Nantucket and a pork industry-sponsored “piggy plane” for the exportation of dissidents — of a surreal silliness that brings to mind another political satire, and I don’t mean “Wag the Dog,” the enjoyable 1997 film on which Mr. Mamet worked as a screenwriter.
No, I’m thinking of a show about a presidential candidate whose party is in trouble because it sold Rhode Island and decides to base its platform on love, something “that everybody’s interested in and that doesn’t matter a damn.” That’s the 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winning Gershwin musical “Of Thee I Sing,” which featured a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind that reflected the country’s dissatisfaction with its leaders, including poor old Herbert Hoover, in the midst of the Great Depression.
Hmmm. Timing is everything, isn’t it? As for me, I might warm more to “November” if it were a musical. After all, Mr. Mamet’s favorite obscenities, with their simple Anglo-Saxon kick, are easily rhymed and thus far underused in the Broadway musical.
David Mamet makes a point in "November" of never mentioning the words Democrat or Republican, so the playwright's new comedy about an undistinguished commander-in-chief approaching the unlikelihood of a second term with numbers "lower than Gandhi's cholesterol" can ostensibly be called non-partisan. But when the man in the White House barely has a clue which country he's at war with because he's too busy selling pardons, finagling personal profit and threatening trips on the "piggy plane" to Torture Town, Bulgaria, the subject being satirized is not exactly cloaked in mystery.
With campaign fever kicking into high gear, the playwright's timing could hardly be better. And the characteristic hard-edged cynicism, trenchant social observation and aversion to P.C. bullshit in Mamet's best work make him seem the ideal pundit to pen a bitingly sardonic takedown of moral bankruptcy in politics. Well, the target is in place but the bullets being fired in "November" are rubber. The slight play delivers the laughs without attempting to gouge too deep under anyone's skin, regardless of where they stand politically.
Mamet's last new play, "Romance," chose absurdist farce as its mode of addressing the Middle East crisis and other contemporary conflicts large and small. His next premiere, opening in May with Center Theater Group in Los Angeles, is a comedy about a beleaguered Roman theater troupe titled "Keep Your Pantheon," indicating a similarly playful tone. "November" cements the impression that the playwright whose fame was built on fanged examinations of ethical ugliness like "American Buffalo" and "Glengarry Glen Ross," has mellowed into a writer more inclined to joke about his subjects than needle them.
Laced with more one-liners than vintage Neil Simon, the model here is somewhere in the arena of sketch comedy or sitcom, albeit with a "fuck" quota (the word and its derivations are used 90-plus times, at a quick count) that would make it strictly cable.
As much as Mamet's work, it's also "The Nathan Lane Show," providing the actor with his best comic showcase since "The Producers." As widely despised president Charles H.P. Smith, Lane keeps the comedy buoyant with his high-energy turn, balancing unapologetic brashness and boldfaced shysterism with a deluded sense of his own martyrdom. This is a president so inured to the failure of his office he's even given up on political rhetoric: "I have built no bridges, cured no disease; and the great problems which I found, I leave behind me."
As his trusted adviser, Archer Brown (Dylan Baker), bluntly tells him: "Everybody hates you, and you're out of cash. Go home."
However, Charles is reluctant to exit the Oval Office (crisply replicated by designer Scott Pask) without cinching his legacy. Of course, he wants a library. Since that requires funds he doesn't have, Charles hatches a scheme to shake down the hapless spokesman of the National Assn. of Turkey By-Product Manufacturers (Ethan Phillips) for $200 million, in exchange for performing the annual presidential Thanksgiving poultry pardon.
Facilitated by Archer, Charles strong-arms speechwriter Clarice Bernstein (Laurie Metcalf) into producing the words that will secure his funds. Fresh off a plane from China with her newly adopted baby and a crippling case of flu, Clarice establishes her own terms, refusing to write the speech unless the president agrees to marry her and her lesbian partner on national television.
Somewhere amid the resulting chaos, and the threats of a Native American chief (Michael Nichols) bartering for half of Nantucket to be turned into a casino, Charles sees a way he might actually win the election.
Mamet knows his terrain, and "November" touches on plenty of pertinent issues regarding the current administration -- a knowingly manipulated panic level and a public that no longer cares, a cavalier attitude to starting wars, unscrupulous solicitation of campaign funds, the diligent dissemination of immigration anxiety and knee-jerk opposition to same-sex civil unions. But while it's frequently funny, the comedy doesn't leave much aftertaste, too often relying on amped-up profanity or snide ethnic epithets for bite.
Director Joe Mantello's last collaboration with Mamet was the incisive 2005 revival of "Glengarry Glen Ross," and while he bumps this production along at the same brisk clip, the writing here just doesn't compare. Modifying his trademark interruptus-speak for complete sentences, Mamet seems to be working hard to amuse without creating three-dimensional characters that inhabit a believable world.
Weakest of the key figures -- which is problematic given that she's the source of the central conflict -- is Clarice. It's unsurprising that a machismo-fixated writer like Mamet might go for easy visual shortcuts in depicting a contemporary, liberal-leaning lesbian -- a Whole Foods bag, yoga, clunky glasses and a bad perm -- but this is a waste of a terrific actress, giving Metcalf little to do but react with tested patience while remaining obtusely loyal to her self-serving boss.
Baker has more to play with, providing sly commentary, an oily remove and some subtle temperance of the president's more outrageous whims.
But this is very much Lane's vehicle and he pilots it with absolute assurance, keeping the play entertaining even as it stumbles toward its slapdash, upbeat resolution. Charles' manic outbursts and abrasive behavior are judiciously punctuated by disarming hints of self-awareness about his yawning absence of integrity. He's irredeemable and shameless in his abuse of authority, but it's not hard to imagine him taking his place in history as the president you love to hate.