Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 17, 2008
November by David Mamet. Directed by Joe Mantello. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Laura Bauer. Lighting design by Paul Gallo. Cast: Nathan Lane, Laurie Metcalf, Dylan Baker, with Michael Nichols and Ethan Phillips.
As to the first, yes, this is the rare theatrical outing by a major writer that doesn't shout itself until it's blue in the face. President Charles Smith, without ever revealing his party affiliation, embodies all the worst qualities of both Bushes, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, Kennedy, and others: moral corruption, diplomatic ineptitude, a soul-deep craving for a legacy at any cost. He is, therefore, the perfect leader for a public willing to elect anyone, even if - approaching the end of his first (and possibly only) term in the White House - he's now universally unpopular with a country that eventually saw the light. ("I always felt I'd do something memorable," he reminisces at one point. "I just assumed it would be getting impeached.")
But given that his "numbers are lower than Gandhi's cholesterol," and the small matter that his double-faced nonsense is about as believable as a Ron Paul/Dennis Kucinich presidential ticket, you can't help but be implicated in Smith's success. As Lane plays him, you intimately understand how he slathered on enough grease to slide by as the most powerful man in the world, and transforms him into one of the most disturbingly likeable figures Mamet has created since he wrote Glengarry Glen Ross.
Lane finds beneath Smith's abrasively odious exterior a stream of genuineness that makes him legitimately magnetic. He evinces an abiding admiration for the unique talents of the members of his staff, aide Archer Brown (Dylan Baker) and speechwriter Clarice Bernstein (Laurie Metcalf), that draws them to his side even when they know humiliation and torture are the most likely results. You can see in Lane's eyes in every conversation his dependency on them, a never-ending search for support he's incapable of providing himself. Smith ensures he's always the dumbest person in the room. (Not that it would be hard in any event.)
The injection of real-world controversy into this nightmarish fantasy would seem to threaten shattering a potentially devastating portrait of Washington expediency run amok. That never happens. If November lacks the skin-piercing bite of Mamet's signature plays and films, and isn't probing enough to be counted as a historically significant satire, it's still a cunning and often hilarious peek behind the vaunted walls of a tangled institution that frequently seems in need of constant tweaking. (In this regard, it's orders of magnitude more compelling than Romance, Mamet's similarly off-kilter treatment of the judicial system.)
Mamet's rapid-fire, bluster-bruising quips are out in terrifying force as well, whizzing through the rarefied air of false propriety that so defines every aspect of Joe Mantello's attractive production. Mantello's light-handed staging treats occasion as a liquored-up cocktail party, if not one in which everyone present is hammered. Scott Pask's Oval Office set has all the respectful chintz of a collector's plate, and both dwarfs and humanizes the silly people who romp about within it. Much as Mamet manages, everything present seems to lambaste Smith, while leaving the Office of the President intact.
Baker is a master of deadpan as the show's stiff-upper-body straight man, while Metcalf's fluttery Bernstein is funniest when she's the most down to earth. Ethan Phillips, who plays a put-upon representative of Big Poultry (I told you, don't ask), and Michael Nichols, as an Indian with a blowgun to grind, do solid work putting Smith's impact into a greater context, if at times they come across as too-willing inhalers of the anything-for-a-laugh atmosphere.
Only Lane and Mamet are needed to get at the heart of Smith and, thus, politics itself. Whether giving voice to the underlying philosophies of rank American capitalism ("The power to trade this for that is what separates us from the lower life forms"), explaining how he bandages the bloodiest issues that face him ("There are no solutions, Bernstein, there are only arrangements of problems"), or juggling the prospects of selling pardons to finance his presidential library or merely apply them guiltlessly toward turkeys, Lane expertly communicates the nothing-centric worldview Mamet has scripted for Smith with the confidence of a State of the Union address.
So engaging is he, in fact, that you might be tempted to view him as an attractive alternative to the candidates in our own presidential race this year, who speak of carefully chosen concepts while saying every bit as little. But don't be fooled, Mamet warns - talking about change and actually changing things are concepts just as different as liberals and conservatives. Whatever category he falls into, and regardless of what he might say, Smith isn't the real deal. November, on the other hand, definitely is.