There has been some speculation that David Mamet’s new political comedy, November, is a thinly disguised swipe at George Bush…but I truly think that any influence Dubya had on the play was minor. Rather, Mamet seems, consciously or not, to be taking his cue from Aaron Sorkin’s TV series The West Wing. Mr. Sorkin started with the premise that there was not only a liberal, Democratic regime in the White House, but at that, one that was fully motivated by altruism. For most (if not quite all, and not always consistently) of its seven seasons, The West Wing was an idealist’s fantasy: What if we had the best White House ever?
Mr. Mamet’s November strikes me as an equally whimsical fantasy. What if we had the most inept President ever may or may not have had its starting point with Bush, but incumbent Charles Smith (Nathan Lane), an incumbent certain to lose the election but days away, has a winning (if myopic) self-awareness, and a gleeful shamelessness about using extortion, bribery and plain old political muscle that would probably never attend a genuine bad-apple politico, because there’s as much self-delusion and rationalization involved in maintaining the bold public face as there is deception and corruption. But Chuck—as his lawyer, smarter confidante and perfect straight man Archer Brown (Dylan Baker) calls him—doesn’t lack for a certain limited perspective on his own antics. Indeed, right at the top of the play, when a distraught Chuck asks Arthur why it’s not possible for him to get re-elected, the unsparing reply is, “Because you fuck up everything you touch.” In a twisted way, candor and truth prevail, and nobody gets to keep willful blinders on for more than a few minutes at a time. The premise here seems more to be: What if the charlatans and mountebanks who occasionally dominate the political machine knew exactly who they were and what they were and what they were doing? No hiding behind a cause, no justification for bad acts, just an understanding that, yes, we have fuck over person Y to achieve goal X.
For example, Chuck has no qualms about extorting the National Association of Turkey Manufacturers (their representative played by an increasingly harried Ethan Phillips) to hike up the fee he gets annually for the symbolic “pardoning” of two turkeys at Thanksgiving-time. Nor about flinging barbed ethnic insults at an American Indian constituent who makes impossible demands in return for his influence (Michael Nichols).
The flip side of self-awareness, though, is conscience, and in spite of himself, Chuck develops one over the fate of his loyal, flu-suffering speechwriter Clarice Bernstein (Laurie Metcalf), who wants nothing more for her stalwart service in writing a brilliant speech that may save his Presidency than to be legally married to her lesbian partner, on national television. Which is of course illegal, as Arthur emphatically keeps reminding him. (Though when he pauses to note, “It’s legal in Massachusetts,” Chuck responds with a withering, “Is that how you want to live your life?”)
There are no slamming doors in November, but as its madness and increasingly intersecting plot-threads escalate, it achieves the level of giddy farce, all of which is played to a T by the superb cast under Joe Mantello’s as-always pitch-perfect direction.
Goofy plot twists aside, November is in no sense an evening of artistic revelation—unless it shocks you to find David Mamet operating in a tradition of comic facility more often trod by the likes of Neil Simon, Murray Schisgal, Herb Gardner and George S, Kaufman (albeit with more F-bombs per square inch). Nathan Lane doesn’t even bother, here, with the kind of fully-fleshed portraiture of which he’s capable, he just flips into whatever comic gear is needed at the time: Wheedling, exasperation, premature celebration, tantrum—and because these are all second-nature tools to him, and his version of them by now very familiar to us—there’s a weird level of comfort to all this.
even venture to say that, as much as Sorkin’s West Wing celebrated the America that might be,
celebrates the hoped
for (and I
guess expected) release of the
White House to nobler forces. And with enough grace in victory to
devil as a lovably misguided pixie. Could the optimism of the Left be
palpably expressed than that…?