November: Theater Review
David Mamet's Broadway-bred Oval Office comedy of 2008 bows in L.A. at the height of another election season.
David Mamet owes no apologies to anyone. Not only one of the major playwrights of the past 40 years, he has been among our most accomplished film directors as well. But this nearly five-year-old play, now making its Los Angeles debut, was probably considerably less amusing by the autumn of 2008’s financial crisis, months after it had closed on Broadway, and time has been anything but kind to it.
Conceived in a spirit of fierce malice toward a feckless incompetent of an incumbent, November presents a couple of days before Charles Smith (Ed Begley, Jr.) will be unceremoniously rejected in his bid for re-election. Abandoned by his party, scorned by his staff, and, of course, hectored by his First Lady who wants to take the White House sofa with her when they vacate the premises, Smith seeks to secure sufficient contributions to have a Presidential library of his own and so shakes down the Representative of the National Association of Turkey and Turkey By-Products Manufacturers (Todd Weeks) for a bigger payoff for the annual pardon of the Thanksgiving birds. (His attention wanders from a more plausible plan from his chief of staff (Rod McLachlan) to sell pardons, since so many malefactors can afford them, introducing some equal-time hazing of Bill Clinton as well as George W. Bush.) But Smith needs an appropriately eloquent speech from his chief writer Clarice Bernstein (Felicity Huffman), just returned from China where she and her female partner have adopted a baby girl, and her demand in return for delivering the complete text is that the President marry the two of them on national television.
Vague topical references notwithstanding, the action of November harkens back obsessively to vintage political stage farces from The Front Page to State of the Union with their crackling dialogue and archetypal characterizations. While Mamet can surpass his models effortlessly with naturalistic invective, his prowess does not lend itself to setting up one-liners, straining for gags that mostly land with leaden thuds. He fulminates too hard to too little effect, often on the assumption that the zing of howling political incorrectness will suffice to give the piece heft, most of which has become far less transgressive as real-life rhetoric in the current campaign has far surpassed these hoary whoppers. November is a very short piece, barely 75 minutes, yet it has the feeling of an over-extended sketch that can only sustain itself by repeating the same humorously styled gambits many times over.
While the cast is all well attuned to the rhythms of the piece, which as in all Mamet have their distinctive intricacies, this is essentially a one-man show, and Begley gives yeoman gusto to this conniving dim bulb. The script doesn’t help him much in making his transitions from crafty to imbecilic seem like facets of a coherent character, but his slimy energy creates a fascination that nearly surmounts the lumbering farcical mechanics of the relatively blunt satire. Huffman is quite sympathetic as the principled aide, though hobbled by a wan conception of her character, burdened with the distinguishing symptoms of a bad cold (mistaken, when convenient, for bird flu).
Venue: Mark Taper Forum (through Nov. 4)
Cast: Ed Begley, Jr., Felicity Huffman, Rod McLachlan, Todd Weeks, Gregory Cruz
Director: Scott Zigler
Writer: David Mamet
Scenic Design: Takeshi Kata
Lighting Design: Josh Epstein
Costume Design: Laura Bauer