New York City Theater
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th St., Manhattan
First you smile, then you giggle, then you guffaw, then you fall into the aisle. “November,” a new play by David Mamet, that scatological purveyor of cynicism, is good for the soul, the mind, the heart, the guts and whatever else is roiling around inside the body.
Yes, the same Mamet, known for using a skewer not a basting brush to cook up his beef against this country’s hypocritical penchant for greed and Puritanism, has written a knockabout comedy. That should not be a surprise since his “Romance” of two years ago was an outright farce and two of his major successes, “American Buffalo” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” are filled with cutting humor. Intact, in case you’re concerned, is the plethora of F-words without which a Mamet sentence wouldn’t scan.
“November” comes at a time when, given the state of the country and the world, crying does no good so we may as well laugh. It’s “The Front Page” set in the Oval Office, peopled by nutcases and so outrageous in its take on so-called civilization, it should help you tolerate the coming year of election blather.
Nathan Lane gives one of his most accomplished performances as a venal and dumb president of the United States. Lest you make the leap to Washington, know that he resembles everyone and no one, since “November” is only partly a screed against the present occupier of the Oval Office. Mamet takes no party sides and Clinton’s penchant for pardons is dealt as swift a blow as is Bush’s non compos mentis.
The time is just before the election. Our president, Charles H. P. Smith (Lane) has been deserted by his party. Why? First of all, his poll numbers are “lower than Ghandi’s cholesterol.” Second, he’s made an expletive mess of everything. Why, he doesn’t even remember if it‘s Iran or Iraq with whom we’re at war.
Saddled with a gossipy (unseen) wife who spills even the most secret of bureaucratic secrets, left alone by a Secret Service out on endless coffee breaks, he’s also financially strapped. How to raise money for his library?
His only friends, it seems, are his stiff-backed lawyer Archer Brown (played suavely by Dylan Baker) and Clarice Bernstein, his lesbian speech-writer (the incomparable Laurie Metcalf), just returned from China where she and her partner adopted a baby girl. Though felled by the flu, she’s summoned to the White House where she endures, for no doubt the thousandth time, Smith’s endless browbeating. (Faced with an amulet whose Chinese writing she interprets as “Love,” Smith says it probably translates as “Don’t Starch the Sheets.”)
Obviously, everyone is in for a ribbing, including a scheming American Indian chief named Dwight Grackle who demands the island of Nantucket for his tribe’s casino. What plot there is involves a nameless representative of the National Association of Turkey-By-Products Manufacturers, who arrives with a pair of the birds for the annual Thanksgiving pardoning ceremony.
Smith tries to shake down and threaten the poor rep and thereby hangs the tale. Thin as it is and as abrupt its ending, the play could delight even the crustiest of party loyalists. As Smith says, “Everyone wants something. The power to trade this for that separates us from the lower life forms, like the large apes or the Scandinavians.”
To tell more of the jokes would be a crime on a par with those lurking in the very walls of this Oval Office. As directed by the gifted Joe Mantello (whose only miscalculation is having Lane mince across the stage at one point) and with sterling support from Michael Nichols as Grackle and Ethan Phillips as the turkey rep, this is a polished and swift (under two hours) evening.
To watch Metcalf deal with her pip of a cold in Act One – the sneezes and the wheezes and the watery stares – and her moments of happiness and sacrifice in Act Two is to see comic acting at its finest. And to hear Lane get three laughs out of two syllables or watch his dyspepsia at full throttle is to experience rare pleasure.
Reversing the accepted theory that inside every tragedian is a clown aching to get out, let’s say, too, that inside every cynic is a romantic trying to get out. And so it is with Mamet who here jams his iron-fisted aches and pains over the horrors we’ve been subjected to these last years into a velvet glove of hilarity.
“There are no solutions,” says one character, “only re-arrangements of problems.” Mamet offers no solutions, either, only the kinds of laughs that may be enough to save our skins after all.
February 29, 2008