nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 12, 2008
David Mamet's new play November is a serious letdown.
Yes, it's very funny; it's as full of one-liners as any Neil Simon play and in places it's as unabashedly and poetically profane as the early classics of Mamet himself. And yes, Nathan Lane as a Gleason-esque chief executive and especially Dylan Baker as his smooth, unflappable legal counsel, deliver the goods to perfection.
Trouble is, what Mamet is writing about here isn't one bit funny. Now, I'm not saying that the state of our union couldn't benefit from some carefully and cannily crafted satirization; far from it. But November is as far from satire as American Idol is from reality: Mamet's targets here are so ill-defined and so scattershot that the whole enterprise simply collapses for being so hollow.
The premise is that it's a few days before election, and President Chuck Smith is doing so poorly in the polls that the party has pulled almost all of his remaining air time and his chief speech writer has already completed his concession speech. At the very beginning of the play, Smith asks his lawyer, Archer Brown, why he's so unpopular, and Brown tells him it's because everybody hates him because he's fucked the country up so badly. This gets a huge laugh of, I guess, recognition—but already nothing here is really recognizable because our present President isn't running for re-election and his popularity is nowhere near as reliably in the cellar as Smith's apparently is.
Mamet has saddled Smith with so many qualities that he's unconvincing as a human being and unidentifiable as any particular political figure that we might be familiar with. He spews obscenities the way Nixon was supposed to have done, and shares some of Tricky Dick's near-pathological obsession with winning and with posterity. But he's presented as a total screw-up and a dummy, on the order of the joke "W" that Will Ferrell used to do on Saturday Night Live. Except that he's also shown to be as cunning and crafty as Karl Rove ever was.
Let me be clear: Mamet wants us to believe that his president is dumb enough not to know why his advisors can't suddenly make it rain on election day, but shrewd enough to concoct a scheme to extort 200 million dollars from the turkey lobby. (For the record, I never quite followed this plan, but the Turkey Lobby Guy caves in and gives Smith the money.)
I guess it's kind of amusing, except that the situation in Washington is so not amusing right now that it's hard to feel cathartic or even just a little bit relieved by enjoying a belly laugh at stuff like this that has no grounding in any kind of reality.
Mamet does put some big ideas in his play, notably a major subplot hinging on gay marriage (is this the most important topic he could think of for a political play on Broadway in 2008?). And there's a very odd ending in which an ultra-liberal lesbian (the President's Jewish speech writer) announces that even if the President himself is a fool, the office nonetheless commands respect because the majority of the people voted for him. I immediately thought: how does this relate to our current situation, where the President was NOT elected by a majority of the people, at least not the first time. You see how off-base the material here feels?
Joe Mantello keeps the comedy moving swiftly, and Laurie Metcalf (as the lesbian speech writer), Ethan Phillips (as the Turkey Lobby Guy), and Michael Nichols (as an Indian Chief, the most offensive of the play's characters—not an easy feat, that) all do what they're called upon to do.
But that amounts to simply going through the motions of a gag machine that feels as out of touch with the times as (one hopes) Abie's Irish Rose would. One-liner put-downs of lesbians, Native Americans, and Jews should be entirely out of style by now; by contrast, scathing satire that casts a pointed and earnest eye on the unchecked corruption, the war-without-end, the frightening doublespeak, and the badly broken electoral system that characterize our world in 2008 ought to be de rigueur, especially from our most celebrated playwrights. But we get lots of the former and none of the latter in November, which makes this show perhaps the biggest disappointment of the season.