Saturday, March 01, 2008

November (The SOB Review)

November (The SOB Review) - Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York, NY

**1/2 (out of ****)

As I entered the Ethel Barrymore Theatre to take in David Mamet’s November, I admit I went in expecting the worst, but came out with some semblance of a smile on my face. Not a big toothy grin, mind you, but a smile nonetheless.

In his incredibly prescient and exceedingly smart screenplay for “Wag The Dog,” Mamet demonstrated his uncanny ability to perfectly nail some of the worst of Washington, and I mean that in the most reverential respect.

But as he’s shown more recently through his work in latter day plays like Romance, he’s placed his skewering, scalding humor in more of a Norman Learesque vein with characters not unlike the "classic" bigot Archie Bunker, who goes on one visceral, politically incorrect tirade after another.

Like Lear, Mamet seems to relish creating loathsome characters who happen to vomit all the worst and most disgusting, if not so puerile, diatribes that no regular, likeable protagonist would ever be caught spewing. Not unlike Lear’s Archie Bunker -- who essentially had free reign to attack virtually any ethnic group, religion or sexual orientation that deviated from his narrowly drawn comfort level -- Mamet empowers his unsavory characters by giving a caustic voice to the ignoble ignoramuses in all of us.

Think of it as “Out of the mouths of bubbas, babes and boobs…” exposing an ugly underbelly of America we'd prefer to think doesn't exist, including within ourselves, including all of our collective prejudices. We may choose to believe we don't have them, but Mamet reminds us they're there.

While that touch largely failed in Romance, it tends to succeed in November, a screwball Oval Office comedy about quite possibly the worst president ever. And that it succeeds is both good and bad. That we laugh at all is unsettling. But the fact is, as preposterous as his premises are, they often offer something worth busting a gut over.

Many in the audience would be completely forgiven for seeing a lampoon of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- even though Mamet insists any resemblance between George W. Bush and his President Charles Smith (Nathan Lane, at once robust and visceral) is purely coincidental -- but the contemptible temerity exhibited by the corrupt Smith is closer in approximation to the complete sellout that Warren G. Harding was.

And faster than you can say Teapot Dome, Smith is all too willing to threaten, cajole and extort, all in the name of preserving his legacy. You see, the first-term Smith, with poll numbers "lower than Gandhi's cholesterol" is on the eve of Election Day, with virtually no chance of earning a second term.

The boisterous Lane delivers a take-no-prisoners tour de force portrayal as a president who's quick to lob f-bombs just as casually and readily as real ones, ironically with the threats of tortuous incarceration aimed at his enemy at any given moment as he is all too willing to give them a one-way ticket to permanent obscurity onboard his "piggy plane" to Bulgaria.

As Lane headlines as the hapless conservative Commandeer (if not Condemner)-in Chief, November ultimately succeeds due chiefly -- pun intended -- to the exceptional performances offered by its enterprising ensemble, with Dylan Baker as Chief of Staff Archer Brown, Laurie Metcalf as chief presidential speechwriter/lesbian Clarice Bernstein, Michael Nichols as Native American chief Dwight Grackle and Ethan Phillips as a chief campaign donor representing the American turkey producers.

While it defies reasonable explanation why Clarice would stick by this president when he deplores her sexual orientation, Metcalf offers perhaps one of the more nuanced female performance ever in a Mamet play. So effective is her ability to wring out the maximum from every line for ultimate impact that I swear I caught whatever was ailing Clarice, freshly back in the White House from China after adopting a baby with her partner.

Baker, who's thankfully back on the Broadway stage with gusto this year -- first as Mauritius' smug philately expert, and now as the smarmy Archer -- effortlessly lands each excoriating put-upon zinger with more precision than the poison dart shot by Grackle at President Smith.

Blessedly, director Joe Mantello seems to have found his farcical footing after stumbling with his last Broadway outing, but Scott Pask's glorious re-creation of the Oval Office certainly helps to set scene from the moment the curtain rises.

While not a perfect send-up of politics, November certainly strikes a chord with those weary with the current state of the union, making me glad I elected to see it.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Did Critics' Ballots Favor November? (January 18, 2008)
November's January Opening (January 18, 2008)
Metcalf Elects To Join November (August 9, 2007)
Will Mamet Offer Hail To Nathan Lane? (May 10, 2007)

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At 01 March, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

I'm glad you left with a smile! It sounds like it was pretty funny, even though it sounds like Mamet is straining credulity to the breaking point. Nathan Lane is one of those actors I definitely want to see on stage in something someday! And I've read that the set is pretty cool, too!

At 02 March, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, The play is a whole lot funnier than the Web site promoting it, I'm happy to report.


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