Broadway doesn’t usually do topical — tuners, after all, are just starting to get the hang of rock music.
But the new political comedy from David Mamet, “November,” opens at the Ethel Barrymore Theater Jan. 17, just as presidential primary coverage has kicked into high gear and the looming 2008 election is poised to consume American attention for the next 10 months.
Joining a Rialto slate already packed with straight plays, “November” aims to strike a tricky balance of laughing at politics without the partisanship that might put off some audience segments. Mamet’s infrequent appearances on Broadway are generally but not always successful at the B.O., but skewing projections in favor of “November” are a cast headed by Nathan Lane coupled with encouraging advance sales.
“November” centers on fictional incumbent president Charles H.P. Smith (Lane), whose misadventures in the days leading up to a presidential election involve civil marriage, casinos, presidential libraries and Thanksgiving turkey pardons. Like the Tony-winning 2005 revival of Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “November” is helmed by Joe Mantello (“Wicked”) and produced by Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel, among others.
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Capitalized at $2.5 million, the show marks the first new play on Broadway for Pulitzer-winner Mamet since “The Old Neighborhood” in 1997 and his first to open cold since “Speed-the-Plow” in 1988. The Lincoln Center Theater production of “Plow” created a frenzy thanks in large part to the presence of Madonna in the female role, but “Neighborhood,” despite strong press, didn’t manage to recoup after a six-month run.
Besides those two shows, Mamet’s only other play to hit the Rialto in the last 20 years was the Tony-winning revival of “Glengarry,” which recouped its $2 million capitalization about four months after it began previews in 2005. Most of his recent Gotham credits have played Off Broadway, many at the Atlantic Theater, the org he co-founded with William H. Macy — including the comedy “Romance,” which was a hit for the Atlantic in 2005.
But when Mamet called Richards to say he had a new play, his aim was Broadway.
“It’s very topical, it’s very funny,” Mamet says. “Call me crazy, I thought it was something a Broadway audience would want.”
Richards, who first met Mamet when he worked as a press agent on the 1983 revival of “American Buffalo” that starred Al Pacino, agreed.
“This is a different kind of David Mamet,” he says. “It’s a combination of the Marx brothers, ‘Your Show of Shows’ and Mad magazine all rolled into one. I thought Broadway would embrace this kind of outrageous comedy.”
Mantello signed on quickly, as did Lane, the former star of “The Producers” who has proven a box office draw in “The Odd Couple” and “Butley.” Laurie Metcalf (as a presidential aide) and Dylan Baker (as an adviser) also are among the cast of five.
Richards says the show’s advance have hit strong numbers. “Sales have been excellent for this time of year,” he says, referring to the annual downturn taken by the box office in January.Richards and his producing partners also have made “November” part of a special “subscription” discount with two other plays he’s producing, the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s critical fave “August: Osage County” and the well-received Harold Pinter revival “The Homecoming.” (The program offers three tickets, one to each play, for the price of two; so far there have only been about 500 takers.)
On the other coast, Mamet has another world preem, a short comedy about a Roman theater troupe called “Keep Your Pantheon,” bowing in May at Center Theater Group in LA (paired with his 1972 one-act, “The Duck Variations”). The show replaces a Mamet musical, “A Waitress in Yellowstone” — with tunes by Mamet himself, no less — that was indefinitely delayed due to actor availability.
“So far, we’ve had no negative response to the change,” says CTG a.d. Michael Ritchie. “David’s plays do really well out here.” (“Romance” played an extended run at CTG in 2005.)
As for “November,” the show, in Mamet’s view, gets a boost in profile from the current presidential election, but he’s not trying to change anyone’s vote.
“It’s absolutely not a partisan play,” he says. “It’s a play about a president, not about this president or the next.” The words Democrat and Republican are never uttered.
Mamet, who wrote the play while serving as frequent writer and director for the TV skein he created, “The Unit,” says he began thinking about politics after he went to a polling place in 2004 and noticed a “palpable feeling of violence” there, marking the visceral divide in political beliefs.
“I wanted to write a play about two ways of looking at America,” he says.
In doing so, he tried to create a play that laughs at politics but doesn’t come down in favor of one party or another.
“Everybody’s going crazy trying to find a middle ground on these things that have no middle ground,” Mamet explains. “These things will work themselves out in time. In the meantime, what can one do about it? One can laugh about the insolubility of the problem. That’s what comedy is for.”