Review of “November”

The plot is so outlandish that it seems to run away from Mamet, and he loses the story and the satire. Instead of the play being a sharp stick poked in the eye of our politicians, like his 1997 film Wag the Dog, it is one of those kid’s punching bags — every sitcom joke pushes politics back down, but then it just comes back up, smiling foolishly. The humor is rubbery, instead of barbed.

There’s also not enough at stake. Set in the Oval Office a few days before the November presidential election, President Smith either wants to extort enough money to fund a Presidential Library or he wants to win re-election, despite polls showing he hasn’t a chance, but we’re never quite sure which. And either way, we don’t really care.

Nathan Lane and Dylan Baker in November

We don’t want Smith to do well. Mamet has ensured that Smith is the politician we fear all politicians might be — nasty, manipulative, spiteful, power-mad, small-minded and incompetent — but we don’t wish him ill, either. His character is so broadly defined that Lane plays Lane, which means Smith is charming, which means we like him.

What we do want is for Clarice to get married.

Laurie Metcalf, who is best remembered for her complex, quirky role as Jackie in Roseanne, plays Clarice with a similar eccentric intelligence. Her Clarice is resigned to her fate as Smith’s abused speechwriter — but when she gets on the subject of her new daughter, whom she and her partner just adopted from China as the play opens, or on her possible wedding, she is a tight coil of passionate strength.

When she says, "I want to marry my partner," it is filled with such a mixture of hope, anguish and certainty that we believe her.

The short second act is more fun than the first, and it’s funnier, with last-minute revelations and unexpected entrances giving it more of a sense of farce. On the whole, it’s an enjoyable play, in the way well-written sitcoms are enjoyable. The rim-shot jokes usually land. There’s a little to think about, but not too much; sacred cows are skewered, but not so violently that you’re reminded of the bloody carcass before you eat dinner; the actors are pleasing to watch without making the audience experience uncomfortable emotions.

But mostly, November feels like a wasted opportunity.

Broadway is a national stage, so to speak; Nathan Lane and Laurie Metcalf are actors who get big media attention; and we are about three rounds in to the prize fight we call election season. Yet David Mamet isn’t taking this chance to tell Americans hard truths (greased with humor or not) about themselves or about their leaders.

He has the ability to do this — we’ve seen it particularly in Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow, but it was also apparent in Wag the Dog — but instead, he has written something pretty inoffensive (even shockingly inoffensive, considering who Mamet is, and what reactions to his work have been) that almost congratulates us on our ability to be tolerant of others.

Yet the one bright spot — and it is a brilliant and shining one — is this lesbian hero, Clarice. We don’t have many lesbian heroes, and certainly not many who are likable and who stand up for ideas much greater than themselves. One wishes the rest of the play was worthy of her character, but even so, she gives us a glimpse of what can happen when someone in politics takes a stand.

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