David Mamet makes a point in “November” of never mentioning the words Democrat or Republican, so the playwright’s new comedy about an undistinguished commander-in-chief approaching the unlikelihood of a second term with numbers “lower than Gandhi’s cholesterol” can ostensibly be called non-partisan. But when the man in the White House barely has a clue which country he’s at war with because he’s too busy selling pardons, finagling personal profit and threatening trips on the “piggy plane” to Torture Town, Bulgaria, the subject being satirized is not exactly cloaked in mystery.
With campaign fever kicking into high gear, the playwright’s timing could hardly be better. And the characteristic hard-edged cynicism, trenchant social observation and aversion to P.C. bullshit in Mamet’s best work make him seem the ideal pundit to pen a bitingly sardonic takedown of moral bankruptcy in politics. Well, the target is in place but the bullets being fired in “November” are rubber. The slight play delivers the laughs without attempting to gouge too deep under anyone’s skin, regardless of where they stand politically.
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Mamet’s last new play, “Romance,” chose absurdist farce as its mode of addressing the Middle East crisis and other contemporary conflicts large and small. His next premiere, opening in May with Center Theater Group in Los Angeles, is a comedy about a beleaguered Roman theater troupe titled “Keep Your Pantheon,” indicating a similarly playful tone. “November” cements the impression that the playwright whose fame was built on fanged examinations of ethical ugliness like “American Buffalo” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” has mellowed into a writer more inclined to joke about his subjects than needle them.
Laced with more one-liners than vintage Neil Simon, the model here is somewhere in the arena of sketch comedy or sitcom, albeit with a “fuck” quota (the word and its derivations are used 90-plus times, at a quick count) that would make it strictly cable.
As much as Mamet’s work, it’s also “The Nathan Lane Show,” providing the actor with his best comic showcase since “The Producers.” As widely despised president Charles H.P. Smith, Lane keeps the comedy buoyant with his high-energy turn, balancing unapologetic brashness and boldfaced shysterism with a deluded sense of his own martyrdom. This is a president so inured to the failure of his office he’s even given up on political rhetoric: “I have built no bridges, cured no disease; and the great problems which I found, I leave behind me.”
As his trusted adviser, Archer Brown (Dylan Baker), bluntly tells him: “Everybody hates you, and you’re out of cash. Go home.”
However, Charles is reluctant to exit the Oval Office (crisply replicated by designer Scott Pask) without cinching his legacy. Of course, he wants a library. Since that requires funds he doesn’t have, Charles hatches a scheme to shake down the hapless spokesman of the National Assn. of Turkey By-Product Manufacturers (Ethan Phillips) for $200 million, in exchange for performing the annual presidential Thanksgiving poultry pardon.
Facilitated by Archer, Charles strong-arms speechwriter Clarice Bernstein (Laurie Metcalf) into producing the words that will secure his funds. Fresh off a plane from China with her newly adopted baby and a crippling case of flu, Clarice establishes her own terms, refusing to write the speech unless the president agrees to marry her and her lesbian partner on national television.
Somewhere amid the resulting chaos, and the threats of a Native American chief (Michael Nichols) bartering for half of Nantucket to be turned into a casino, Charles sees a way he might actually win the election.
Mamet knows his terrain, and “November” touches on plenty of pertinent issues regarding the current administration — a knowingly manipulated panic level and a public that no longer cares, a cavalier attitude to starting wars, unscrupulous solicitation of campaign funds, the diligent dissemination of immigration anxiety and knee-jerk opposition to same-sex civil unions. But while it’s frequently funny, the comedy doesn’t leave much aftertaste, too often relying on amped-up profanity or snide ethnic epithets for bite.
Director Joe Mantello’s last collaboration with Mamet was the incisive 2005 revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and while he bumps this production along at the same brisk clip, the writing here just doesn’t compare. Modifying his trademark interruptus-speak for complete sentences, Mamet seems to be working hard to amuse without creating three-dimensional characters that inhabit a believable world.
Weakest of the key figures — which is problematic given that she’s the source of the central conflict — is Clarice. It’s unsurprising that a machismo-fixated writer like Mamet might go for easy visual shortcuts in depicting a contemporary, liberal-leaning lesbian — a Whole Foods bag, yoga, clunky glasses and a bad perm — but this is a waste of a terrific actress, giving Metcalf little to do but react with tested patience while remaining obtusely loyal to her self-serving boss.
Baker has more to play with, providing sly commentary, an oily remove and some subtle temperance of the president’s more outrageous whims.
But this is very much Lane’s vehicle and he pilots it with absolute assurance, keeping the play entertaining even as it stumbles toward its slapdash, upbeat resolution. Charles’ manic outbursts and abrasive behavior are judiciously punctuated by disarming hints of self-awareness about his yawning absence of integrity. He’s irredeemable and shameless in his abuse of authority, but it’s not hard to imagine him taking his place in history as the president you love to hate.