What recourse is there for artists, writers, intellectuals, and philosophers to do other than express their feelings about their country’s current state of political and social affairs through their work? It is certainly more of a direct outlet for their opinions, hopes, and despairs than is generally available to ordinary citizenry. How then can one blame the bold, often savagely insightful playwright David Mamet for writing what he hopes is a scathing comedy about an incompetent and reviled president? “November” is an honest but only fitfully committed attempt to make us laugh aloud at a broken government, while we also ache on the inside.
While the main character in “November” is a purportedly fictional U.S. president, neither Democrat nor Republican, whose dependence on vulgar expressions, crass deeds, and incorrigible behavior may be more than just a few steps or two away from what we recognize (or choose to believe) as blatant reality, he is, in fact, a close enough example of a very real and present president to make us cringe. Timely and topical as it is, Mamet’s play is only a half-hearted attempt to skewer its intended target and make us think about tomorrow and the course Americans must take to effect a change. Although the dialogue is ripe with expletives and the action propelled by idiotic discourse and farcical posturing, the play runs out of comedic steam long before it ends.
What more needs to be said than that Nathan Lane is playing President Charles Smith, whose second term is in jeopardy for reasons that have only peripheral connection to his egregiously boorish personality, the abuse of his colleagues, and the desecration of his office. Lane, who owns the stage when called upon to be shrill and strident, uses his remarkable gift to keep the inanities of the plot from imploding as they happen.
Mamet’s intended targets — governmental hypocrisy, ingenuous wheeling and dealing, easily corrupted morals and a basic disregard for ethical values — are, as dramatized, crassly observed. Unlike the raucously antic and also politically-propelled “Romance,” which played Off-Broadway a few seasons back, “November” uses its farcical premise to merely irritate and unnerve our senses as we sit and crave more confrontational and incendiary zingers.
Mamet, famed for blistering social satire, as with “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “American Buffalo,” appears to be on holiday. Unlike those plays in which Mamet’s favorite word, “fuck,” becomes part of a specifically lyrical style of communication among the verbally challenged, it registers as phony and sounds merely desperate in “November.”
Profanity pops up with abysmal regularity only to wrench a laugh amid rage-infused one-liners. “Fuck” tumbles recklessly out of Lane’s mouth in every situation as if he were in competition for the world’s most unstoppably obnoxious stand-up comic. One can only admire Lane for maintaining the arrogance of a president who not only makes no apologies for being the worst in the nation’s history but also one who wallows smugly in all that it implies. Give Mamet credit for making this shameful result of our indifference too close for comfort.
Dylan Baker is splendid and vigilantly straight-faced as Archer Brown, the president’s loyal and devoted advisor. Baker insinuates just the right tone of restrained forbearance as he attempts to get the president to give up any hope of being re-elected for a second term. It is the brilliantly comic timing between Baker and Lane that sustains most of the play.
The president is not only out of money and out of friends, he is socially out of touch with his speechwriter, Clarice Bernstein (Laurie Metcalf), a lesbian just off the plane from China with an adopted baby. Metcalf is funny enough but given little substantive dialogue as she suffers valiantly with the Asian flu and attempts to coerce the president into sanctioning her marriage to her partner. Her best moment comes when she appears in a wedding dress all prepared for her nuptials in the White House and expecting it to be shown on national television.
The play, under Joe Mantello’s feverishly deployed direction, parlays nonsensical situations to minimally comic effect. One involves the president trying to secure enough money to establish a commemorative library in his name. His plan is to shake down a representative of the National Association of Turkey By-Product for $200 million, who barters every year with the president to grant a pardon to otherwise condemned turkeys at Thanksgiving. Ethan Philips is entrusted with making this pathetic character more than a joke. To our relief, President Smith meets his match with Dwight Grackle (Michael Nichols), a sturdy and stubborn American-Indian chief with designs on turning half of Nantucket into a gambling Mecca, a plan that just may give Smith the campaign money he needs.
If the absurd slapdash conflicts are ultimately vindicated with predictably insupportable resolve, the actual office of the president can, at least, be admired for being handsome and in the hands of Scott Pask, a most competent and admired designer.
“November,” Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street. $46.50 to $99.50. 212-239-6200.