The American Conservatory Theater’s West Coast premiere of David Mamet’s November, directed by Ron Lagomarsino (television pilots include Picket Fences – Directors Guild Award, Homefront – Emmy nomination), is a bellyful of laughs!
What can one say about a playwright who has won a Pulitzer and been Oscar nominated twice? That he is a genius? His political beliefs were squarely on the liberal side but then he came out and said this:
“I found not only that I didn’t trust the current government (that, to me, was no surprise), but that an impartial review revealed that the faults of this president—whom I, a good liberal, considered a monster—were little different from those of a president whom I revered. Bush got us into Iraq, JFK into Vietnam. Bush stole the election in Florida; Kennedy stole his in Chicago. Bush outed a CIA agent; Kennedy left hundreds of them to die in the surf at the Bay of Pigs. Bush lied about his military service; Kennedy accepted a Pulitzer Prize for a book written by Ted Sorenson. Bush was in bed with the Saudis, Kennedy with the Mafia. Oh.”
So one expects a fair and balanced piece in November. What one does not expect is an out and out laugh riot full of caricatures that get their point across wonderfully well. Andrew Polk plays the beleaguered President Charles Smith, who is on the eve of losing an election to a second term in office. His party has abandoned him and his “liberal” lesbian speechwriter Clarice Bernstein (played phenomenally by Rene Augeson) has just returned from a baby-adoption trip to China, brought back the Bird flu and is now busy writing his concession speech!!! His Chief of Staff Archer Brown (played by Anthony Fusco) keeps telling him that his wife Kathy cannot take the couch home, and there is no money in his library fund! In the meantime the guy from the turkey association (Manoel Feliciano) is waiting for the president to pardon two turkeys – for a fee of course! President Smith is trying to figure out HOW many turkeys are eaten at Thanksgiving and how much money if it worth to the Turkey and Turkey by-products manufacturers for him to NOT PARDON ALL TURKEYS!!! He tries to raise money from an Indian Association chief (Dwight Grackle – played cracklingly well by Steven Anthony Jones) but ends up insulting the chief and saying he hopes his second wife is eaten by a walrus!!!
President Smith is an optimist who just wants one more chance, and the great speech that Clarice has written for him. She will not let him have it unless he marries her and her partner on TV! Somewhere in all this insanity the Chief’s blowpipe dart aimed at the president is deflected by Clarice, and Prez Smith realizes that there is good in all of us. The Chief offers him partnership in a casino on Nantucket Island and the President proclaims “I love this country!!” and pardons the Chief on his way to the turkey pardons.
It is this practical optimism that permeates November, as Mamet told New York magazine in 2008:
“It’s not a cynical play. I might flatter myself by calling it a populist play, because there’s one polemic going on between the president, who’s unutterably corrupt, and his speechwriter, who’s in his view unutterably naïve. At one point she says to him, “People say we’re a country divided, but we’re not a country divided, what we are is a democracy.” And I think that is the meeting ground of the two positions. That the only country that’s not divided is totalitarian. The good news is it’s a spectacular country. We’ve been around for 230 years in spite of human nature, because that’s what the Constitution is all about. It’s saying, of course everyone’s gonna try and take control. Of course they’re gonna subvert every law that’s supposed to keep them in line. Of course the president is gonna want to be imperial, of course Congress is gonna want to become obstructionist, of course the judges are gonna be activist. Duh. They figured this out in 1787 and drew up a few sheets of paper that have kept the country in line. It’s a great place to live.”
Thus in the end November is not just a barrel of laughs that keep coming at you at break-neck speed. It is about optimism and about hope and about the fact that people on this or that side of the political spectrum are still people, and GOOD people! This is Mamet at his best, no gimmicks, no McGuffins, just a deep insight into what makes a country work.