Friday, January 04, 2008

Preview: "November"

Photo/David Hume Kennerly

[November opens on January 17th, 2007.]

While David Mamet and Nathan Lane may be as sharp as ever, the product of their respective wits, November, is an unyieldingly dull joke about stupid people in positions of high power. Except that their artistic creation, President Charles Smith, isn't stupid, at least not by current standards; he's just vulgar and crude, which is why his speechwriter, Clarice Bernstein (Laurie Metcalf) still comes to work in the morning. (That and the treat of being sent to bumfuck Bulgaria to be tortured; in Mamet's world, the president is an impotent bully.) It's also why he keeps a sycophantic lawyer, the quiet and corrective Archer Brown (Dylan Baker); the way his shit stinks, he knows he needs to cover his ass.

But beyond being a theatrical stand-in for our political frustrations, November refuses to talk turkey. That's all the more impressive considering that the main plot involves the president's attempts to extort a Representative of the Turkey By-Product Manufacturers (Ethan Phillips) into giving him the money he needs to build a Presidential Library when he is ousted from office in next week's election. But when a comedy doesn't have a point, all it can do is pour gas on an already riled audience, poking fun at "jibberism," the inanity of thinking "slavery" and "disco" are the two greatest wrongs in recent times, or simply pointing out the extremes of political corruption. It may be true that "there are no real solutions, there are only rearrangements of problems" (especially so in a comedy), but there's no problem in the play to rearrange: President equals Bad. End of story.

Mamet soldiers on anyway, his once frightening language now barely eliciting a giggle, and adds to the play with a series of phone calls designed to show off Nathan Lane's ability for the double-take. At least the regular scenes force Lane to play off his fellow actors, but for these monologues, Lane comes unhinged: he falls into the usual high-pitched squeals, the out-of-breath gasps of incredulity, the aghast moans, the blustering rage . . . I guess this is what some people are paying for, but Lane hardly needs Joe Mantello or David Mamet to do that, and November's biggest failing is that it becomes The Nathan Lane Show. It's also easy to generate laughs from a one-sided conversation; the other character never has to justify any of the implausible stuff they're saying, and the playwright, severing human connections, can play entirely for laughs, as with Chief Dwight Grackle (Michael Nichols). Sure, it's funny to hear Smith yell, "I hope your next wife is eaten by a walrus, too!" but when Grackle actually shows up, the shallowness of both the character and the play become painfully obvious.

The few bright spots of this play come from Mrs. Metcalf, who plays an idealistic left-wing lesbian with such giddiness that she floods the theater with spots of actual humanity. If there were a point to this play, her struggle to find the good in Smith's heart would be it, even if she inevitably falls back on the same extortive tricks to get what she wants: marriage, on national television. If there's anything the last eight years have taught us, it's how the world works -- or at least how stupid people think the world works, and therefore, the way the world works -- and Mamet's comic pontificating is just hot air. I won't say I didn't laugh at November -- I believe the count was three chuckles? -- but that just makes it President Smith's favorite thing: happy horseshit.

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