David Mamet’s brassy Broadway comedy about a president facing a tough reelection season, November, was more or less been savaged by the New York critics when it opened in January. Ben Brantley called it “glib and jaunty” and “an easy laugh machine” in his review for The New York Times; “the play rings false,” wrote Jeremy McCarter in New York magazine. The play may not be as intelligent as Mamet’s screenplay for Wag the Dog in terms of its satire on political spin, many of the jokes are cheap, and the plot may be as far-fetched as the outcome of the 2000 U.S. elections. But the production, which I witnessed over the weekend during a trip to New York, has merits nonetheless.
Chief among these is probably one of the most brilliantly conceived and beautifully constructed stage props I’ve ever seen. I’m talking about the antique globe that stands inconspicuously in a corner of set for half of the play, before suddenly taking on a new and unexpected life as a fetishistic kind of mini-bar. “I understand the world,” says President Charles “Chuck” Smith (played at caffeinated pitch by Nathan Lane), taking the top of his globe-shaped drinks cooler off like it’s the lid of a giant banqueting dish and casually reaching for a bottle of ice-cold beer. The prop is only used once during the course of the play, but Mamet’s entire satire is right there inside that bit of office furniture along with those Budweisers.
November also has some interesting things to say about the relationship between performance and politics, a subject close to my heart right now.
One of the play’s core themes is the political machine’s foregrounding of superficial form over substantive content. As such, news of major and pressing world events such as the war in Iraq and the possibility of an invasion by Iran are quickly superceded by, among other nonsensical issues, the President’s desire to exhort as much money as he can out of a representative of the National Association of Turkey By-Products Manufacturers in order to fund his presidential library.
Mamet further pokes fun at Smith’s obsession with empty gesture by making the character refer in a ham-fisted way to cue cards containing personal information about all the people the president meets. The idea behind the cards is to convey the (false) impression that the President knows and cares about the little details of his subjects’ lives. Elsewhere, and on a related note, one of the most memorable scenes occurs when Smith’s right-hand-man, Archer Brown (a slick Dylan Baker) hands the President a list of “off-the-cuff remarks” to memorize and insert into the next day’s business. The oxymoron inherent in rehearsing something that is supposed to be improvisatory tells us a lot about the extent to which politicians’ behavior can be likened to a carefully-manicured garden lawn — and just how easy it is for weeds to grow there nonetheless.
There’s no subtlety to November. The farce is as broad as Lane’s maniacal chipmunk grin. Yet that’s the point. Lane may spend more of his time on stage mugging than acting, but there’s a nugget of truth to his pretty awful performance. The entire play is a study in bad acting after all. It perfectly reflects just how bad the acting can be in The Whitehouse.