Photo by Scott Landis
In David Mamet’s “November,” Nathan Lane is President Charles Smith, a chief executive with decidedly limited skills; Dylan Baker plays his chief of staff, Archer Brown, more or the less the adult at the White House.
Landslide for Lane
Nathan presides in Mamet’s prescient political satire
Ethel Barrymore Theater
243 West 47th Street
Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.;
Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.
BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE
Politics, as anyone with access to a newspaper or television knows only too well, is a very, very messy business. A combination of naked aggression, manipulation, ego run rampant, and cynicism tricked out as humanity, this most ancient of arts is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. The depressing and tawdry circus of the current, seemingly interminable primary season could make one laugh if it didn’t so often make one want to cry.
Happily, relief is in sight. Sadly, not in the form of politicians actually addressing issues of substance, offering cogent policies, or doing something other than pandering to whomever their pollsters tell them is going to give them a vote on any given day. But a brief and oh-so-welcome break from all the infuriating madness comes in the form of a sublime, classic comedy from none other than David Mamet.
“November” tells the story of President Charles Smith who, having “effed” the country, in Mamet’s inimitable and characteristic language, seeks re-election. Without cash, the support of his party, or poll numbers above the single digits, the Oval Office is a scene of desperation and pandemonium. Smith, whose ignorance is only exceeded by his stupidity is, apt as the idea might appear, not necessarily a stand-in for our real sitting president. Rather, he is the encapsulation of everything that plagues our political system and our culture today. Hence, he offers up a more damning verdict.
This dramatic device elevates the satire to a much broader plane and puts Mamet’s play on par with other great political dramas that are issue- rather than personality-driven, including such classics as “Inherit the Wind,” “Of Thee I Sing,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” In fact, Mamet’s play a rollicking comedy despite its mordant satire feels like the classic comedies of Kaufman and Hart, pushing situation far beyond credibility while still maintaining an inherent truth that is irresistible.
So, as President Smith fights for his political life, and as his chief of staff Archer Brown tries to rein him in, he demands that his lesbian speechwriter craft a speech that will turn around his sagging poll numbers, all while trying to extort the National Association of Turkey By-Products Manufacturers for campaign funds. No one escapes Mamet’s lacerating eye, or his precise and sharp language, yet the comedy is so deftly balanced that this play is destined to become a classic and one of the first breezy and intelligent comedies of substance we’ve seen in a long time.
Throughout, the stage is a whirlwind of nearly epic proportions as the play races at breakneck speed through one bit of salient silliness to the next. That’s due to the incredible performance of Nathan Lane who fully abandons himself to the role of President Smith. After a brief sojourn into deeper, more emotional performances, as in last year’s “Butley,” Lane has returned to the broader comedy with which he is most often associated. Still, he has an intelligence and presence that places him among the best comic leading men alive today, and like them, makes it seem effortless.
Dylan Baker is outstanding as Archer Brown, and the interplay between the clearly more intelligent chief of staff and the often out of control and infantilized president is hilarious and something all too easy to imagine happening in our current political state. Laurie Metcalf scores as Clarice Bernstein, the lesbian speechwriter who has just returned from China with a baby to raise with her partner. Her comic timing is impeccable, and she balances belief in the president with an understanding of his failings that is often quite touching.
Much as we might laugh at these characters and situations, Mamet, as always, turns the mirror on us as well. After all, the people running the circus may be clowns, but we as a nation put them in charge.