Monday, October 20, 2008

November wins in a landslide

Adrianne Krstansky, Richard Snee and Will McGarrahan inhabit the (very) Oval Office in David Mamet's November.

In his recent essay "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'," David Mamet declared that his latest play, November (at the Lyric Stage through Nov. 15) was "a laugh a minute."

And he was right about that. This silly satire of presidential politics is a laugh a minute - at least for long, blissful stretches - and the Lyric production is the funniest show in town, hands down, and whatever your politics are you'll enjoy it, so run out and see it immediately.

But Mamet also declared that November was "actually about politics, which is to say, about the polemic between persons of two opposing views."

And boy, was he wrong about that.

So any reviewer of November faces a small quandary - how to accurately assess a play that succeeds brilliantly at what it's not intended to do. If Mr. Mamet had announced an intention to hybridize Neil Simon with Saturday Night Live, we would be forced to throw roses at his feet; for here is Lorne Michaels's familiar apology for white male asshole-dom (in the person of a very Bush-like Chief Executive) transported whole onto the stage - only served up with far better jokes, timing, and comic construction than SNL could ever manage.

But Mamet's goal, it turns out, was actually "a disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view." And at this he utterly fails. And I mean utterly fails. As in, "Are you kidding? The 'disputation between reason and faith' never happens in your play!"

Now I know what you're thinking: that essay's just a publicity stunt, an incoherent pastiche of paeans to the Constitution and the jury system (good things, both) designed to build some political buzz for November. Sure, the play sports a few potentially offensive jokes about torture and extradition (in which the author comes off, alas, a bit like a Nazi chuckling over the Holocaust). But if Mamet's not 'brain-dead,' then he's still definitely liberal, because November closes on a note so sweetly left-of-center, it might have been penned by a Kennedy.

But here's the rub (at least for me): I actually wish Mamet had delivered the play he's pretending he delivered. If only he had made a case - some kind of a case - for conservatism; Lord knows, with the Bush administration socializing the banking system, the libertarian mask has slipped from the Republicans' face, and they need some kind of identity other than their current one as conduits for upper-class financial interest and under-class bigotry. But Mamet doesn't even try to supply a conservative M.O. - worse, he doesn't seem to be aware that he isn't trying.

And this gap does, I'm afraid, completely undermine the beautiful perpetual-motion machine that is his plot. If we pause even for a split second (luckily, Mamet never gives us that much time) to ponder the motives of his characters, November suddenly collapses, because its story makes no political or personal sense. The play is set in the Oval Office (here cleanly - and cleverly - evoked as a literal oval), with election day fast approaching, and a W.-esque Chief Exec, "President Chuck Smith," facing the fact that he's so unpopular, even his own party will no longer buy him air time. But inspiration strikes when a rep for the American Turkey Association shows up with a few gobblers to be pardoned for Thanksgiving, and the Prez puts on the squeeze for some big bucks - actually, 200 million bucks. At the same time, the presidential speechwriter - oddly, not a born-again Christian but a Jewish lesbian - has just arrived from China, with an adopted baby and her same-sex partner in tow. Oh and a bad case of bird flu. Can you write the rest? Well, maybe not till I tell you that she's just written President Smith the greatest speech of his (and her) career - only to get it, he's going to have to marry her and her partner on national television.

Now can you write the rest? Well, you couldn't write it as brilliantly as Mamet has; he's smoothly restyled his macho rhythms into the template of classic farce, and this whirligig all but glitters as it whirls. But if we pause to look beneath its machinery, we suddenly realize that the President doesn't really have any leverage with the American Turkey Association, and why, exactly, a Jewish lesbian would be serving in his administration is a complete mystery. In fact, the President himself is a complete mystery - his desperate, dopey self-awareness has some charm, but as a character he's an empty shell, a contrivance to keep the one-liners coming - or to occasionally serve as Mr. Mamet's (or the Israel lobby's) mouthpiece. Alas, Bernstein, his speechwriter, is likewise little more than a mouthpiece for NPR, and his major domo, Archer, is something of a cipher.

But how much more interesting November would have been if they weren't! If only Mamet had had the balls to craft a real Republican lesbian, like Mary Cheney or (dare I say it?) Condoleezza Rice, November might have been a play for the history books. For how better to thrash out a polemic of conservatism than among people from whom it requires personal sacrifice, or even internal contradiction? (And don't tell me such themes couldn't play out as farce - hell, they're playing out as farce right now, in real life.)

But for whatever reason, Mamet dodged that challenge, and so has written merely a very funny vehicle for very skilled farceurs. And the Lyric has put a posse of them at the wheel, with Daniel Gidron giving precise directions from a detailed map. As President Chuck, Richard Snee gives what is probably the technical performance of a lifetime; he catches every nuance of every wisecrack in the script. He doesn't supply, however, the inner life the text lacks - nor does he maintain the needy, egomaniacal energy that could make the play's gears spin faster and faster. Still, for the most part you'll be laughing so hard at his wackily stentorian delivery that you'll hardly care. As gal Friday Bernstein, the skillful Adrianne Krstansky doesn't exactly limn a character either (how could she?). But she manages her half - i.e., the only half - of the "polemic" with sympathetic, understated skill, and thus is always likeable, if only believable in her precisely-rendered bird flu. Will McGarrahan is equally deft as First Admin Archer, but perhaps could exude a bit more menace as we begin to sense he's one of many powers behind this particular throne. Meanwhile Neil A. Casey knows exactly what to do as the flustered turkey king, and of course does it impeccably. Alas, as the politically-incorrect Native American casino chief who arrives late on the scene, Dennis Trainor isn't quite in the same league as these old pros, but he does pull off a hilarious war-dance. And by then you'll have given this production your vote anyhow.

1 comment:

  1. I agree, we didn't see a comedy about poltics or ideology and the brilliant performances by Snee and Krstansky and company simply didn't hide the fact that Mamet failed to deliver all he promised.

    If anything, it's commedia dell'arte in the Oval Office-- with President Smith as Pantalone, Archer as Pedrolino, and Bernstein, the speech writer as Columbina. But the problem is that commedia relies on a certain degree of grotesque, that oddly enough, Mamet backed away from.

    (To be fair, the happy ending is a traditional element of commedia-- which is what made Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Love's Labours Lost so subversive in their time.)

    The Smith we met in the first act, with his paranoia, viciousness, willingness to engage in extortion, and torture, and spout racist bile at the drop of a hat makes him a wonderful grotesque: Something of a cross between Richard Nixon and Dick Cheney (and definitely not W.) But it's all lost in the second act. You're absolutely correct to question why a liberal Jewish Lesbian would be working for a man like that-- and why he would even want to speak words she wrote, let alone have her on staff. There was a rich vein of grotesque possibilities of hypocrisy and cynical opportunism, that Mamet simply did not deal with in the second act.

    (And don't get me started on how Mamet clearly didn't bother researching the legal issues of same-sex marriage which would have made for an even funnier dialogue.)

    Yes, it was better than SNL but SNL has been playing it save since the 1980s. We have spent the last several years living in a grotesque political environment-- and that's what we need to see on the stage.