David Mamet’s fleet, foulmouthed “November” peels back the Oval Office wallpaper to reveal a shlubby, nonentity president (Ed Begley Jr.) who, facing disaster in next week’s reelection bid, will say or do anything for a chance to hang on. At the Mark Taper Forum, helmer Scott Zigler has found the properly cool, uninflected tone for making jokes land. Better still, for all Mamet’s exaggerations, we readily believe — hell, since the Nixon tapes, we actually know — our leaders really do talk and think this way about us. This is satire with a scorpion’s sting.
That sting is very much in character for a scribe who has worked in the farce form before, but never before so fully aligned it with the tropes of his more iconic plays, and not just the f-bombs dropped non-stop like the rockets’ red glare.
In President Smith’s dreamy ability to weave castles in the air and then instantly, violently lash out at whoever’s in his path, we see echoes of Teach in “American Buffalo”; both claim our sympathy even as we recognize what slimy toads they are. There are intoxicating “Glengarry Glen Ross” fumes when the leader of the Free World strongarms a turkey industry rep (Todd Weeks) into ponying up more cash for the symbolic Thanksgiving gesture of pardoning our national bird.
The utterly non-P.C. Smith has the occasional “Oleanna” moment in dealing with crack speechwriter Clarice Bernstein (Felicity Huffman), whose price for a possibly career-saving address is a nationally televised White House wedding to her Lesbian partner. (“They have rights,” Smith concedes about women, “just like regular human beings.”) For that matter, Bernstein’s seductive spiel to our macho leader to “do a pure thing” is pure “Speed-the-Plow,” though there the temptress was willing to trade sexual favors rather than just craft an oration, but that’s D.C. for you.
The point is, “November” really is vintage Mamet in a bubblier, frothier bottle, which confirms CTG’s wisdom in assembling a company heavily stacked with veterans of his Atlantic Theater Company and major productions. Weeks, aide de camp Rod McLachlan and irate visitor Gregory Cruz are droll character types Preston Sturges would happily welcome to his ensembles.
And the never-better Begley and national treasure Huffman are a marvel separately and together, not least because their roles could be prone to overplaying and gasping for laughs. The thesps have bought into the gospel Mamet preaches — of laying back and letting the words carry you along — which happens to be an ideal recipe for comedy as long as the inner needs are present, which Zigler has successfully insisted they be.
Lest “November” be mistaken as a work of complete cynicism, consider those fitful but real flashes of sympathy for President Smith. Consider, too, Bernstein’s alternative vision of the body politic which, though it’s followed by more backstabbing, Mamet allows to go unchallenged:
“It seems: We are ‘a nation divided.’ But: We aren’t a ‘nation divided,’ Sir. We’re a democracy — we hold different opinions. But: We laugh at the same jokes, we clap each other on the back when we made that month’s quota, and, Sir, I’m not at all sure that we don’t love each other.”
As credos go, that’s not a bad one to take along, fingers hopefully crossed, into the voting booth our own fateful November.