One gag on the possible disappearance of Israel, “You
people got along without a country for 2,000 years; you’ll be fine,”
gets a shocked, disapproving “Oooooh!” So what happened to Mamet? He
used to be known for profanity-laced if poetic invective. He’s been
reading the news, and he turned 60.
To see how Mamet changed his tune if not his pointed barbs, you have to return to the far-off days of January 2008, when November opened.
We had a deeply unpopular president whom most of the nation (talk radio
fans, excepted) thought to be an unredeemable lunkhead. In November President
Charles Smith (Wally Dunn) is so unpopular his poll numbers are lower
than “Ghandi’s cholesterol.” Gleefully politically incorrect, he
bristles with all the sentiments you aren’t supposed to utter. He’s
anti-black, anti-Indian, anti-Semitic and most vehemently homophobic,
always when insulting his articulate lesbian speechwriter Clarice
Bernstein (Sharon Eisman). And he’s a dunce: “I always felt that I’d do
something memorable; I just assumed I’d be getting impeached.”
But President Charles Smith is not a stand-in for George W. Bush, and November has
not been superannuated by later events, like the General Motors
bankruptcy and the advent of a president who speaks in full sentences.
For starters, Smith can pronounce “nuclear,” he sports no cowboy boots
nor Texas drawl. Far from being dominated by a paternal vice president,
he doesn’t even know the man’s name—only that the man would have to
pardon Smith were he removed from office for high crimes and
Before we follow where Mamet is taking us with this
concept, consider what a license for outrageousness President Smith is,
like Archie Bunker or the many incarnations of Sacha Baron Cohen. On
the questions of marriage and adoption: “Why not just get knocked up in
the back seat of a Chevy like every other American girl?” On adopting a
Chinese baby: “What in the world do you think all those cute little
Chinese baby girls are gonna do when they grow up, having eaten our
food, learned how to play the cello, bested all the white children at
math, and slurped up all the jobs under affirmative action?”
Much of November is Mamet’s comedy routine, a kind
of vaudeville where the president rants and blusters, bouncing against
his much wiser assistant Archer Brown (Jesse Bush). Under Peter Flynn’s
deft direction, the two have a perfect shtick that connects every
single time. Brown affects to be distracted by a telephone call, a
report that has to be read or a clipboard so that his deflation of
Smith’s harangues comes in from the side with a one-beat hesitation.
Smith: “We can’t build a wall to keep illegal aliens from crossing the
border?” Brown: “Because we need illegal aliens to build the wall.”
Action in November follows two plots, one outward
and contrived to link the action and thus unimportant, and second the
development of Mamet’s political argument with the presumed beliefs of
his audience. Despite being the more significant, the second line is
subtle and easy to miss.
According to the cockamamie premise, Smith is broke and
wants to raise money while still in office for his presidential
library. Waiting in the anteroom is the representative of the National
Association of Turkey and Turkey Byproducts Manufacturers (Greg
Bostwick in his 25th Hangar role), an eager exploitee. For his role in
one of the emptiest ceremonies of the year, the annual pardoning of the
turkey, Smith raises the levy for the lobbyist from $50,000 to $100,000
because there is also a backup fowl to be pardoned. When the Turkey Guy
meets that fee, Smith ponders the worth of declaring pork the meat of
choice for Thanksgiving and thus driving turkey farmers out of the
Extending the holiday theme, President Smith is also
bargaining with a New England Native American, Dwight Grackle (Ryan
Garcia), who wants rights to half of Nantucket in order to open a
casino. In the absence of the Secret Service (Equity actors run high),
Grackle has no trouble bursting into the Oval Office brandishing an
ancient Indian weapon that shoots poison darts.
The second plot builds on Smith’s constant barrage of
anti-gay smears delivered to the lesbian speechwriter, always referred
to by her family name “Bernstein.” At first she sounds like the voice
of integrity because she will draft a speech that would make her
complicit in Smith’s fumbled attempts at extortion. But Bernstein has
an extortion scheme of her own. She wants to marry her partner, even
though that’s currently against the law. She is sure that if Smith
married her in the White House, regardless of rights not granted him in
the Constitution, that would trump all the legal wrangling.
In interpreting this part of November, we
have the advantage of Mamet’s own words. In his explosive essay, “Why I
Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal,” published March 11, 2008, in the Village Voice two months after November opened,
the playwright berates all the reviewers who missed the point.
President Smith might be a buffoon and guilty of all kinds of venial
crimes, but he willingly bucks fashion, the liberal cause du jour and
his in-house intellectual in order to uphold the law. Although Mamet
never cites an earlier work, his view is much like that of Mark St.
Germain’s political comedy Camping with Henry and Tom (1995),
which argues we can be happy with our worst president, Warren G.
Harding, running our system when you consider the alternatives.
Although more farce than play of ideas, November is
a provocative, hilarious work by one of our major living playwrights.
With artistic director Flynn in charge, and top-of-the-line production
values such as Julia Noulin-Merat’s authentic set and Jennifer Caprio’s
costumes, this is the kind of show that pulls Syracuse audiences to
Ithaca in the summer.
This production runs through Saturday, July 18. See Times Table for information.