Whatever happened to David Mamet? The testosterone-fueled playwright — responsible for Pulitzer Prize-winning plays Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo and Sexual Perversity in Chicago and films The Untouchables and 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 squishy.
His politically incorrect comedy from 2009, November, is not your father's Mamet. While there are plenty of those patented 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 the taping of an R-rated cable sitcom. The audience is primed and ready to laugh; all that's needed is the three-camera setup. Let's shoot this in one take, folks, so we can break for lunch.
Through September 23. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. $50-$63.
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 boob 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 a blue streak, has an easy time with these surefire gags. Most of the jokes find their targets; 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 spineless back slumped against the wall, or wrapped up in the 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.
Meanwhile, Smith's overworked ace speechwriter Clarice (Elizabeth Bunch), an avowed Jewish lesbian — you could plot the standard jokes on a graph — surprises with her own devious blackmail scheme. 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, sporting a poisoned blow dart to further complicate Smith's final days in office. Meanwhile, Smith has to deal with his blabbing wife on the phone, a Secret Service that takes inopportune coffee breaks, and an impending nuclear strike.
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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 impressive pro's arsenal to animate this cartoon, whom 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 and 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, yet 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 plays variations on his one-note character better than Artie Shaw; 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 tissue 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.
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.