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Review: David Mamet's 'November' at Stage West

Stage West’s power trio: Jerry Russell as the president and Jim Covault as his legal adviser.

David Mamet is best-known for plays like Glengarry Glen Ross, hard-hitting, obscenity-laced stage dramas about cut-throat businessmen. But Stage West is presenting the Texas premiere of what many take to be a change-of-pace: Mamet’s political satire, November. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says the politics actually don’t matter that much.

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David Mamet wrote the screenplay for Wag the Dog, the 1997 movie about a president distracting the country with a fake war. At the time, you may recall, it was used as an accusation against President Clinton during the Lewinsky impeachment scandal when he tried to have Osama bin Laden killed.

It seems timing is everything — in both politics and comedy. Wag indicates Mamet is hardly a stranger to political satire. But when it comes to topical humor today — some 14 years after that film — the question is often raised: How can any stage play compete against the up-to-date, media-savvy mockery of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert? Or the snarky savagery that ripples through the interwebs every minute?

It’s always been true, though, that some political satire remains fresh, some evaporates very quickly (one has to remind the audience about old impeachment scandals). With November, Mamet is not aiming (mostly) for immediate relevance: His political leaders belong to no identified party and although we’re at war with Iraq in the play, that’s been true for eight years.

What’s different about November, is that, sure, it’s set in the Oval Office, but it’s actually a farce. It’s about selfish people caught up in desperate plans, people being reduced to their most craven impulses. That description applies to Glengarry or Speed-the-Plow as well, but as bitterly funny as those plays can be, they’re not as plot-thick as this, as one-liner-thick. Besides, compared to them, November is almost good-natured. Critics have called it ‘cynical’ for its view of political machinations as matters of knavery or stupidity. Yet Mamet, acting somewhat surprised at the response, has called it a love letter to America.

Judging from the Texas premiere at Stage West, November is an OK farce, and people, including me, have misread that love letter.

President Charles Smith has zero chance at re-election. He’s a complete incompetent. In these last weeks before the election, his campaign has died; even his party has cut off media support and isn’t returning his phone calls. The president asks his legal adviser (the always dry Jim Covault), why does everyone hate me? He’s told, Well, because you’re still here.

Smith has screwed up everything he’s touched, including the economy. But if Smith’s inept, he’s also eagerly corrupt and shameless about abusing power. He threatens people with being dumped somewhere in Bulgaria. He sets out to raise campaign funds any way he can. He strong arms the head of the turkey owners’ association (Donald Jordan, below, right): Come up with some cash, he’s told, or Thanksgiving gets canceled.

By the end, Smith’s get-rich-quick schemes have led to a blow-gun dart murder, a lesbian wedding scheduled for TV and Nantucket Island being traded for an Indian casino. Imagine such events in a typical Mamet play. True to his minimalism, November has only one set with one door that gets slammed (and that, only once), but still, with all this going on, it’s clear the play is a farce. Critics have concentrated on the verbal jokes that Mamet employs — their political pertinence of lack thereof, the dwindling comic payoff of a president shouting obscenities — without grasping that, as is often the case with Mamet, it’s the actions that are telling. What people say is mostly lies or nonsense.

But the critics have a good case about the humor: For the first act, November just spins its wheels, not headed in any particular direction. Events aren’t truly dire yet, and while President Smith is a reckless goofball and a scoundrel, Jerry Russell, who plays him, doesn’t have the frantic, mean-spirited edge he needs to jump-start any sense of Hellzapoppin in the White House. It’s in the second act, when the complications take hold, that November starts to deliver some real laughs.

On Broadway three years ago, November was seen as lampooning George Bush — although it’s a portrait only as a general outline (wrecked economy, disregard for civil liberties, dim-bulb awareness of the law or the Constitution). Typical of the ornery Mamet, he promptly undercut that analysis by coming out publicly at the time about his conversion to free-market conservatism.

Predictably, liberals have responded by despairing, grumping, trashing the play (often comparing it to Neil Simon) and trashing Mamet’s new book, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, which sets out his simple-minded revelations about race and politics. Conservatives, meanwhile, have gone into proud ecstasy. A major American artist actually denounces identity politics and espouses Milton Friedman-style, laissez-faire economics. Yet conservatives have not managed to explain away Mamet’s earlier, powerhouse critiques of capitalism: American Buffalo, Speed and Glengarry, his trio of business-as-crime and business-as-betrayal dramas. That’s because Mamet’s political conversion — like Moliere’s Catholic burial despite his excommunication — does little to refute his plays’ satiric effectiveness.

And none of this changes November much, either. My defense of the play against its misrepresentations is not meant to argue it’s great Mamet. It’s not. The playwright has been a master of knife-edged putdowns and brutal sexual politics (one Hollywood mover in Speed screams at his weak-willed partner, “You’re a woman. You squat to pee.”). Yet November has too many lame one-liners. The speech Alec Baldwin delivers at the opening of the film version of Glengarry has more crackling life to it than the entire first act of November.

But by the end, November, as directed by Dana Schultes, can actually be touching and amusing. Sherry Jo Ward plays Smith’s lesbian speechwriter, and Ward feels utterly comfortable on stage — partly because the speechwriter is not directly involved in all the criminal fund-raising efforts. Ward doesn’t have to work at desperation. In effect, she’s seen as the solution to Smith’s problems because her speeches are so good. He just needs the money to get her words to the American voters, and he’ll be back on top.

It’s her lines about our country being a nation of shade-tree mechanics, of people who don’t care about a colleague’s politics so long as he or she is trustworthy and effective — it’s those speeches that are Mamet’s love letter to America. I think many theatergoers, like myself, probably dismissed the speeches as just the kind of manipulative hokum that a politician like Smith would resort to. Or perhaps they’re Mamet’s spoof of warmed-over Peggy Noonanisms (the speechwriter-turned-pundit who gave us Reagan’s “city on a hill’ encomium to America).

Which may mean we’re the cynical ones here. I think Mamet believes what she writes. He’s always admired professionalism and craft — as manipulative as they are, it’s the spin doctor and the Hollywood producer who are almost lovable in Wag the Dog. The playwright may think his new conservative outlook has come as a sudden, recent and rational enlightenment (as explained in The Secret Knowledge). But it’s been clear since The Winslow Boy (1999) and TV’s The Unit (2006-9) that Mamet has been writing more about the traditional virtues he admires — honor, duty, integrity, discipline, independence — instead of  the bullying, venality and ignorance he targeted in Buffalo, Speed and Glengarry.

Indeed, Baldwin’s top-dog salesman-thug in Glengarry is far more disturbing than any of Smith’s happy violations of the Constitution, After all, depicting our political leaders as corrupt or stupid is not the same as finding them actively evil. Corruption and stupidity are pretty much the baseline, the default mode, for political satire.

In November, the comic hot air and shenanigans come and go, and relatively little of national importance has changed. That’s because for Mamet, pointless politics-as-usual washes past, and our republic remains. Even his scoundrel president has become (a little) lovable, more scamp than scoundrel. He’s even seen to be a little wise — when Smith becomes truly effective as a wheeler-dealer.

Have a happy Fourth of July.