November Defies Expectations

I was going to complain about David Mamet’s new comedy November which opens January 17th at The Barrymore. I was going to explain how I was a theater major at a university near Chicago in the late 80’s when David Mamet was a really big deal.  It was all about Mamet and Shepard and Malkovich – it was, like, the swinging-dick era of theater. A lot of bluff and bravado and posturing, a lot of faux-rugged manly-man stuff about the American Myth, yadda yadda. But for better or worse it had attitude, it had an opinion, it had an edge. Mamet’s coarse language, flat acting style and abrupt rhythm was innovative and you could  always expect the unexpected, you would be made uneasy and challenged. At least I was, since I was young and knew nothing of the world.

As one would assume, my taste has evolved a lot in the ensuing years and, of course, the world has changed. I haven’t seen a Mamet play in years because his style  and subject matter don’t really speak to me anymore. And though I knew that Mamet’s style had evolved as much as I had changed, I still walked into the theater with a certain set of expectations. I expected Mamet’s keen intelligence, his anger and complexity. I expected him to take on a challenging premise and flip the whole thing around. I expected things to start out one way and take a left turn into somewhere creepy and dark and complicated. I expected to see the sort of work that would justify Mamet’s position as one of the most respected playwrights of his era.

Well, Mamet defied my expectations. November is, basically, a highbrow Saturday Night Live sketch as performed by exceptionally talented actors. The premise is fairly straightforward. It is Thanksgiving and President Smith is a spectacularly corrupt and incompetent Commander-In-Chief about to lose an election. He is desperate to stay in office and comes up with one desperate scenario after another to get the money to buy ads for his moribund campaign. With his trusty and equally amoral lawyer by his side he bargains with the Turkey Lobby, The Native Americans, and his Lesbian Jew speechwriter, attempting to make a bunch of irreconcilable deals that will enable him to stay in office.

I mean, as far as sketch comedy/sitcom writing goes, Mamet hits it out of the park. The show is pithy, full of one-liners and set-ups, over-the-top characters and absurd situations. And you couldn’t ask for a better cast. Nathan Lane is at his hammy best as President Smith, Dylan Baker as the lawyer Archer Brown wields a comic sensibility that is funny and dry as the Sahara. Laurie Metcalf is delightful as the Lesbian Jew Speechwriter Bernstein. The supporting cast is also spot-on.

As I said, there are some great one-liners and there are a few moments – particularly in the loosely ideological back-and-forth between Lane’s President Smith and Metcalf’s Bernstein – that hint at the “Big Picture” Mamet. But in the end Mamet is painting with an extra-broad brush, going for big gags and goofs rather than insightful or trenchant commentary. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If you want insight with your humor you should have seen David Hare’s Stuff Happens at The Public.

Having read the interview with Mamet in New York magazine, I have no doubt that this is exactly the play he wanted to write. He’s at a point in his career where it is, no doubt, all about success and the broadest possible appeal, he has no interest in risk. And I think that’s great. The audience I saw the show with were laughing uproariously and gave it a mostly-standing ovation.  That being said, they also did that annoying “entrance applause” thing at the top of play and when Laurie Metcalfe entered, so, you know, it was that kind of crowd.

On the way out of the theater someone remarked “It was like it was written by one of Mamet’s undergraduate playwriting students” and the person next to him said, “More like high school.”

I beg to differ. November is a well-made, if light-weight, political farce. Expertly written and acted, it is highly-accomplished professional fluff. And if that’s what Mamet was aiming for, he succeeded. I’m sure it will be a big hit.

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