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picture - NovemberTheater Review

by John Topping

published January 18, 2008



now playing on Broadway

at the Ethel Barrymore Theater


David Mamet has written some brilliant plays in our time, often of hardened, tough guys looking to get ahead in the world in any way possible.  These guys say “f*ck” a lot [hint: replace the symbol “*” with the letter “u”].  And I mean a lot.  Yet, typically, the cadence of their tough guy patter, rooted in realism as it is, results in a sort of poetry. Mamet’s style is distinctive, sometimes to the point of self-parody.  And perhaps that’s why he has chosen to go in a brand new direction with his new play November.  The only Mametian traces are (a) the over-use of the word “f*ck” (delivered here more dutifully than organically) and (b) the brutal ambition of heartless men.  It’s otherwise unrecognizable as his work, not just in style but even moreso in terms of quality.  The direction he has chosen is outrageous, farcical, and satirical comedy.  It’s good for a playwright to break out of his usual mold and surprise the audience with something different; however, November resembles something like an uninspired pilot for a sit-com that improbably found its way to the Broadway stage.


To help us get our bearings, the program informs us that the time is "morning, night, morning;" and the location, "an office."  More specifically, it’s an oval office; in fact the famous one in Washington, D.C. that's often occupied by the President of the United States.  The time, by my powers of deduction, would be November of 2004, when the unpopular incumbent president is up for reelection. 


The president’s name is Charles Smith, and we’re given clues that this is taking place in extremely recent times.  Oh, we wonder, so this is really a comedy about George W. Bush?  Well, yes and no.  But mostly, no.  On the "yes" side: he is selfish  and indifferent to the good of the country; he is extremely unpopular; Clinton is mentioned as a predecessor; a war is raging in Iraq; it looks like he’s on his way out of office and he is the only one particularly upset about the notion; he has no hesitation in sending people to torture camps; there is a brouhaha about keeping illegal aliens from crossing the border.  That last point brings up one of the funnier lines of the evening:  “We can’t build a wall to keep out the illegal immigrants because we need the illegal immigrants to build the wall.”  This brought the house down, and was even funnier when I first heard it on The Daily Show.


These topical references are presented essentially when they are convenient for easy laughs.  But really, there is nothing – nothing – to credibly suggest that this is George Bush.  He is way too articulate; there’s no Texas drawl or swagger; his relationship with his vice-president is antagonistic rather than dependent; he is ready and willing to stay up as late as necessary to work; he pooh-poohs the necessity of taking vacations; he pronounces “nuclear” correctly.


The reason behind the dearth of Bushisms is that Mamet isn’t actually writing about Bush.  President Charles Smith is a completely fictional character.  As played by Nathan Lane, he isn’t really a character at all, but more of a nondescript holder-of-the-highest-office in a painfully elongated vaudevillian routine.  Or perhaps he’s taken the Mamet mantra of “Don’t act; just say the words” too seriously, and all we’re left with is his standard-grade shtick.  Dylan Baker as his right hand man and Laurie Metcalf as his speechwriter have their talents thrown to waste, although Baker emerges the most unscathed.  Star Broadway director Joe Mantello seems helpless in shaping the mess into anything coherent.  As is usually the case when everything else in a Broadway production fails, the sets (Scott Pask), costumes (Laura Bauer) and lighting (Paul Gallo) are all of the professional standard you would expect on Broadway.  The room even has a ceiling, which was an unusual touch.


The plot, such as it is:  President Smith, who is nearly broke (huh?) wants to find a way to drum up some serious bucks while he’s still in office.  Apparently the post-presidential lecture circuit doesn’t exist in this world.  Gathering rich criminals for a Pay-to-Pardon scheme is tossed about.  Waiting outside is his 10 o’clock appointment, a Representative of the National Association of Turkey By-Products Manufacturers (that’s how the character, played by Ethan Phillips, is billed).  He is there to make a standard formal request for an annual American tradition, asking the president to pardon a turkey for Thanksgiving.  President Smith decides to up the price of this favor from the standard $50,000 to $100,000, because there is a back-up turkey to be pardoned.  (The tradition is real; the payment to the president for the favor is pure fantasy.)  When the RofNAoTB-PM meets him, though, Smith raises the price even further to $150,000.  The Turkey Guy (that's how he's billed in the biographies) won’t go higher than $185,000 (after already accepting $150K price tag; whatEVer).  In between this ludicrous bargaining, Smith schemes for a way to change the Thanksgiving tradition of eating turkey to eating pork if they do not relent to his perpetually climbing fee.  Then, out of nowhere, they offer $200,000,000.  That’s enough money to buy lots of campaign airtime, so he’s back in the presidential race.  But his lesbian speechwriter (a.k.a. Bernstein) won’t write the speech he wants from her, because it essentially makes her complicit in extortion (the details of why are fuzzy, and don’t matter).  However, anyone can be bought, and her price is to legally wed her lesbian partner, which is the only issue of importance that the play even remotely explores.  And Smith is the one who will do the marrying (say what?).  And she won’t give him the speech until after they’re married.  The whole play could have been built around this issue, but Mamet rather tires of it, preferring to focus instead on building it around the turkey(s).


What the hell is this? Satire?  I suppose.  Biting satire?  Uh ... no.  In fact, it could seriously use some dentures.  Simply put, it’s Mamet experimenting with farce; and the experiment ain’t ready for prime time.  The same script, word for word, but without Mamet’s name attached to it, would barely stand a chance of being produced in New York as an Equity Waiver production.  The writing is empty, amateurish and ultimately irrelevant to anything that’s happening in the world.  (Additionally, Smith's homophobic barbs directed at Bernstein give the sense that we're not hearing a distinction between author and character.)


Although this is an imaginary world, there is very little in the way of logic, internal or external.  The Secret Service have the day off in Act I and are on coffee break in the brief Act II.  The timeline of when, during November, Election Day and Thanksgiving Day fall are reversed.  Visitors to the oval office have free access to storm in.  An Indian (Native American) shoots a poison-tipped dart across the room and kills Bernstein, but a few minutes later she comes back to life when she realizes that the Chinese amulet hanging around her neck prevented the dart from penetrating her.  Bernstein's trump card for getting what she wants is possession of the speech she has written; but she leaves it laying about in the middle of the room, unguarded, and no one tries to snatch it; then, when it’s made clear that her end of the bargain is kaput, she voluntarily hands him the speech.


Farce grants a lot of leeway to invent a topsy-turvy world, but if there is no grounding in reality whatsoever, the playwright is just a guy yanking his chain and making up any fantasy for his own whimsical pleasure.  There’s a word for that, by the way:  it’s called “masturbation.”  In fairness, though, the audience I watched it with was eating it up.  So, since we’re living in a theatrical world where critics and audience both embraced last season’s even worse fiasco Deuce, go ahead and slap down your $99.50, head to the Ethel Barrymore Theater and join the circle jerk.


johntopping @




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