David Mamet’s latest, which takes place entirely within the Oval Office, is sort of a cross between his own “Wag The Dog” and “South Park,” resulting in an offspring that resembles a “Doonesbury”-like comic strip brought to life.
If you’re expecting Aaron Sorkin-like attempts at verisimilitude in recreating the inner workings of the halls of power, you’re on line for the wrong show. “November” is satirical farce, giving us a president of unprecedented venality and stupefying ignorance, combined with an unquenchable lust for power and money. With Nathan Lane as president Charles Smith, we get a glimpse of what the world might be like if crooked producer Max Bialystock were given the keys to the White House.
In lesser hands than Mamet’s, “November” could easily devolve into a cheap frat skit, taking potshots at easy political prey. But thanks to Mamet’s talents (he’s long been one of my favorite writers), “November” succeeds on two levels: it makes us laugh, and it makes us despair at the thought that the men and women who ascend to positions of power – though not nearly as funny as the characters here – are probably no less venal, and perhaps even more so.
The story takes place during the closing days of a presidential election. President Smith is way behind in the polls, and his party (he is never identified as either Republican of Democrat) has given up even trying to win. Smith is being encouraged to accept the coming defeat and slip off quietly into the sunset. His lawyer (Dylan Baker, showing brilliant comic chops) has to repeatedly remind Smith that the country hates him and wants him out of office as soon as possible. “Why?” Smith asks. “Because you fucked up everything you touched,” his henchman replies – to sustained applause from the audience at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Unfortunately, Smith is so broke that his presidential library fund has only $4000, and he is advised that if he can’t win the election, he can at least sell a few pardons.
I won’t delve much deeper here, because Mamet is a great storyteller and there are several wonderful surprises in “November,” but I will tell you it involves the pardon of Thanksgiving turkeys, a lesbian speechwriter (a wonderful turn from Laurie Metcalf, best-known for her work on “Roseanne”), same-sex marriage, Indian casinos, rumors of Iranian missile strikes and lots and lots of swearing.
The show is in previews and could use a bit of tweaking, but overall it’s a wonderfully entertaining night of theater. If only I could get over the nagging thought that, despite its farcical nature, it’s much closer to the truth than any of us would wish it to be.