January 19, 2008

Voting No on "November"

Politics, or at least political satire, makes particularly strange bedfellows as foul-mouthed David Mamet and frolic-making Nathan Lane have teamed up to create November, a comedy about a bumbling White House incumbent trying, by whatever means necessary, to be reelected president. And I made an uneasy voyeur of their goings-on.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a Mamet fan. I even once had “a date” with him. An old boyfriend gave me the phone number of a playwright pal of his when I moved to Chicago for a short time in the early ‘70s. I called and the pal offered to show me around town one evening, introducing me to the Art Institute of Chicago and the deep-dish pleasure of the original Pizzeria Uno on Ohio Street. I never saw him again after that; I was stunned when I later saw Sexual Perversity in Chicago and realized it had been written by my tour guide.

Lane is even more beloved in my household. My pit-musician husband K played in the orchestras of the 1990s’ revivals of Guys and Dolls and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Lane’s onstage antics in those shows, particularly in Forum, cracked K up almost every night and we have made a point of seeing just about everything that Lane has done since then. But K decided to pass on November. That seemed strange to me at first because K is also something of a political junkie. But, after seeing the show, it occurred to me that may have been why he passed on it.

November tells the story of Charles Smith, a hapless and unpopular president whose poll numbers are “lower than Gandhi's cholesterol.” He and his adviser, a wry Dylan Baker, scheme about how they can stay in office and their plan ropes in Laurie Metcalf’s comically earnest speechwriter Clarice Bernstein, a lesbian with a bad cold and a good cause; a representative of the turkey industry played by Ethan Phillips and a disgruntled Native American played by Michael Nichols. The seemingly ubiquitous director Joe Mantello puts them through their paces nicely and the equally ubiquitous set designer Scott Pask recreates a recognizable, and yet amusing, version of the Oval Office. As one would expect from Mamet, there are lots of undeleted expletives and no political correctness—every group and every political issue gets skewered. And as one would expect from Lane, there are lots and lots of laughs.

And yet the whole thing seemed kind of pointless to me. It wasn’t that the situations were so ridiculously silly; I loved “Wag the Dog,” the equally silly 1997 film satire that Mamet co-wrote about a president who tries to divert attention from a sex scandal by invading Albania. And it wasn’t even that so many of the jokes were predictable in a Borscht Belt kind of way; Mel Brooks was sitting across from me and although he was clearly aware that people were looking at him to gauge his response, I caught him nodding his head a couple of times in apparent "ta-da" recognition of the shtick. I think it was that the show’s underlying messages that politicians can be puerile and that democracy is important seem superfluous coming in the midst of an historic campaign.

Mamet has been campaigning hard for November, giving almost as many interviews as Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama or John McCain and even maintaining a blog in the voice of his presidential character (click here to read it). But for me, there’s no contest: November can’t compete with the drama, the inspiration or even the humor of the real thing.


Anonymous said...

that's harsh. I heard that the audiences laughed their asses off.

Aaron Riccio said...

Not harsh. Audiences laugh their asses off at reality television, but that doesn't make it good. In this case, they're laughing at Bush and Nathan Lane, not the play.

Good call, "Broadway & Me" -- there's no hanging chad on this one. It's a lame duck (or turkey) of a play.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Jan, Loved the anecdote about you and Mamet. My question is "Was he a good guide?"

Being a political junkee, I have mixed emotions about seeing this show. Because I probably know DC better than the average theatregoer, I'm prepared to walk away unimpressed particularly after reading reviews by people I respect like you and Aaron Riccio.

And I didn't find anything in your review harsh at all. Just a well-stated honest opinion.

Anonymous said...

this clown aaron is still in High School and doesn't know what he is talking about.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Many thanks to all of you for your comments. It's great to have people caring so much about the theater that it provokes this kind of back and forth. Although I could do without that last bit of name calling from Anonymous.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Jan, I'm stunned by the Anonymous comments. Anyone who has taken the time to read Aaron's terrific blogs (he has two, you know) will know that he's a deep thinker.

Both you and Aaron do us a great service with your outstanding blogs.

Anonymous said...

I saw it last weekend and really enjoyed it. Laughed and laughed and laughed some more. Fabulous cast and so many lines I wanted to remember and share later. It was Mamet-tastic!

jan@broadwayandme said...

Anonymous, thanks for leaving a comment. You're clearly more a fan of this one than I am but I'm glad you enjoyed it and I hope you'll keep reading and letting me know what you think of other shows when you see them.