For wit and good humor, call on Mamet, Hitchcock
Broadway has two terrific new comedies on the boards to chase away the winter blues. One is David Mamet's "November," a hilarious, timely, decidedly un-Mamet-like laughfest at the Ethel Barrymore that stars Nathan Lane as a corrupt, dim-bulbed, inept U.S. president desperately seeking a second term despite four years of deadbeat leadership. (This president is so clueless that he's not quite clear whether the U.N. still exists; he's also stunned when he discovers it's not in the Constitution that a U.S. president is guaranteed a presidential library.) No one, of course, plays exasperation better than Lane, and he's in full irritation mode here, zinging out a flood of Mamet one-liners with effortless glee while looking like a clone of Lou Costello, as if that marvelous comedian of yesteryear was in a suit and tie, caught in a tsunami of his own making. This will not be one of Mamet's most enduring works — though it seems particularly relevant at this point in U.S. political history — nor is it likely that time will be kind to it. But as directed by Joe Mantello, "November" couldn't be more welcome at this precise moment when wit and good humor are in such short supply, not only in the theater but also everywhere else in today's world. Any time Mamet speaks, he's worth hearing; any time Lane performs, it's wise to have a look. Dylan Baker and Laurie Metcalf greatly add to the fun. … The other delightful new comedy is "The 39 Steps," imported from London, where it's still playing. This edition is presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre; the play's official title is "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps." The Hitch reference comes from the fact that though "Steps" initially was a 1915 novel by John Buchan, this particular adaptation is an almost scene-for-scene spoof/interpretation of Hitchcock's 1935 movie version that starred Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, a longtime favorite with film buffs. Cleverly adapted by Patrick Barlow and brightly staged by Maria Aitken, the miracle here is watching a cast of four deft actors playing all the parts, only one of them (Charles Edwards, from the original London production) as the same character from start to finish; he's the hapless hero, who, in typical Hitchcock fashion, is an innocent who suddenly finds himself charged with murder and on the run from the police, who want to lock him up, and a villainous contingent eager to do him in. The chase takes him through crowded London streets, running on the top of a speeding train, darting across the Scottish highlands, hiding under waterfalls, wading through rivers and finally onto the stage of London's Palladium, all depicted in a series of minimal and amusing sets devised by Peter McKintosh. This one comes highly recommended but with a codicil: You'll enjoy it most fully if you have a viewing or reviewing of the Hitchcock film beforehand because "Steps," for all its classic status, isn't nearly as familiar to most people as such Hitchcock endeavors as "North by Northwest," "Rear Window," "Vertigo," "Strangers on a Train," etc. … Speaking of comedy, the New York Friars Club is honoring the funniest lady of them all, Lucille Ball, by renaming its second floor Celebrity Room in her honor Feb. 6. Lucie Arnaz will be a special guest of honor that day at an invitation-only reception in the new Lucille Ball Room to mark the occasion.