David Mamet's November: A Funny, Forgettable Farce

See our interview with director Sanford Robbins.

The setup:

Whatever happened to David Mamet? The testosterone-fueled playwright (Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Sexual Perversity in Chicago; films The Untouchables, The Verdict) has had a dramatic change of heart, or some other organ. His politics have veered sharply from left to right, and suddenly he's gone all funny, all the time. This recent (2009) politically incorrect comedy, November, is not your father's Mamet. While there are plenty of those patented motor-mouth F-bombs sprinkled all over the place like salt on sirloin, what's with the Letterman one-liners and the hoary vaudeville routines? Suddenly, we're at a taping of an R-rated cable sitcom. The audience is primed and ready to laugh, all that's needed is the three-camera set-up. Let's shoot this in one take, folks, so we can break for lunch.

The execution:

In this farce without doors, it's the cartoon characters who get slammed. Mamet sets up his straw dogs with panache. It's the week before the presidential election, and incumbent Charles Smith (Jeffrey Bean) hasn't a chance in hell. Opportunistic like Nixon, clueless like Bush, and as unpopular as (fill in your favorite POTUS), Smith doesn't even have sufficient funds for a library. He's toast. "What is it about me that people don't like?" he cries despondently to his oily adviser Archer Brown (Todd Waite). "That you're still here," responds his Rove-like toady with crisp Neil Simon timing that doesn't stop except for the laughs. A few seconds later, Brown unloads another sassy retort: "Everybody hates you. You're out of cash. Go home." Every character, swearing up a blue streak, has an easy time with these sure-fire gags. Most of the jokes find their target, some misfire widely. But for the most part, the laugh lines (and those politically incorrect ones have wickedly funny barbs to them) arrive with precision, as if cued by teleprompter.

With his back slumped right against the wall, or wrapped up in the draped U.S. flag, Smith dreams up an extortion scheme to buy some desperately needed air time. Thanksgiving turkeys wait for their presidential pardon in the outer office, and the Representative of the National Association of Turkey & Turkey By-Products Manufacturers (James Belcher, gobbling and fawning like his feathered charges) is blackmailed into giving Smith an outrageous bribe so Smith won't declare the holiday bogus and shift the national dish to pork. Smith's overworked ace speechwriter Clarice (Elizabeth Bunch), an avowed lesbian, has her own form of blackmail to woo the president to her own agenda. And when pork becomes untenable, Smith dreams up "cod" for the replacement, which, as if in a scene out of Kaufman and Hart, brings on Dwight Grackle (David Rainey) in full screwball Micmac regalia and sporting a poisoned blow dart to further complicate Smith's final days in office. Meanwhile, Smith has to deal with his blabby wife on the phone, a secret service who take inopportune coffee breaks, and an impending nuclear strike.

Mamet's whirligig plot, if you care to call these various Saturday Night Live sketches a plot, never actually runs out of steam, but it doesn't really go anywhere either. In fits and pieces, the antics start and stop, then start up again, always allowing the funny lines to register, or a bit of business to get the laughs going again. Through it all, Bean has a field day as hapless Smith, using his always impressive pro's arsenal to animate this cartoon, who Mamet doesn't define except by comic outline. Bean colors in the picture as if he works at Pixar. In this master study, he pops his eyes, does a mini-Groucho walk, clambers on the desk, sticks his ass in the air, and constantly varies his voice. Naturally, thanks to Bean, we root for this political chucklehead, and nothing he does, which is always expedient and self-aggrandizing, seems truly venal. He'd sell his mother for a vote, and we urge him on. He's not a bad person, just a bad president.

While Bean is "on," Waite plays straight man and carries the other punch lines. He accomplishes this with exquisite timing and an efficient style that would be chilling if this weren't a comedy. He gets comic mileage out of every joke, good or groaning. Belcher is appropriately fussy as the guardian of the turkeys; Rainey has a stellar entrance and does the most with a one-trait character than anyone; and Bunch does a credible Agnes Gooch impersonation as cold-in-the-nose, smarty-pants Clarice. Some of director Sanford Robbins's "touches" are misplaced when not completely unnecessary -- the kleenex stuffed-in-the-nose bit was funny, once, in fourth grade -- but he keeps the pace unflagging, which is what this play demands, as the jokes come fast and furious. He juggles all these Mamet goofballs with circus flair.

The verdict:

If you want some hearty laughs at the expense of politicians gone wild, Mamet's November will suffice. However, be warned, as soon as you leave the theater, you'll have already forgotten it. Much like Calvin Coolidge, so I'm told.

Mamet's political football gets kicked around until September 23 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-228-8421 or visit the company Web site. $50-$58.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover