David Mamet's political satire Novemberat the Mark Taper Forum is a tough project to pull off, because the characters are so despicable, particularly the protagonist, President Charles Smith (Ed Begley, Jr.) — a greedy, double-talking, corrupt, hot-headed, "leader" who only cares about his legacy and bank account and squat about his constituency.
As a second term election nears, Charles Smith finds his approval rating in the toilet. He is flat broke and everyone hates him. His reelection committee — and therefore, his party — has betrayed him and he has a better chance of winning an Oscar than a second term. So he plans to use the ceremonial presidential duty of pardoning the Thanksgiving Turkey as a blackmailing scheme so he can walk out of the White House with a bounty.
Standing in his way are Clarice Bernstein, his liberal lesbian speechwriter (Felicity Huffman), Chief Grackle, an antagonistic Native American (Gregory Cruz), and an uptight representative of the National Association of Turkeys (Todd Weeks).
Mamet sprinkles the play with many chuckles, but the play meanders too freely, and when it finally arrives at its destination, it seems like much ado about nothing. It doesn't really have much new to say. Politicians are hypocrites. Politicians are greedy. Politicians don't mean what they say in speeches. Ultimately, the play either needs to be wittier and more farcical or much darker with more political intrigue.
Moreover, the play feels dated in 2012. Mamet's tone is clearly a reaction against the policies and practices of the Bush administration when the play came out in 2007.
The role of Smith requires an actor who can make ruthless lines brutally funny but not turn off audiences. Begley is an affable persona, but is simply not cutting enough for the role. While his comic timing comes in handy with Mamet's one-liners, somebody with more gravitas is required to pull off such a vile part.
Huffman is fantastic as Clarice, the sneezing, hoarse, over-exhausted, and yet idealistic, moral center of the piece. As Archer Brown, Smith's weasely chief of staff, Rod McLachlan perfects the Mamet spin, carrying on several conversations at once, usually on the phone, typically armed with a lie.
Weeks almost personifies a turkey with his neck outstretched and his eyes in a panic whenever he feels cornered, which is often. Although he's not given much time to gel in the play, the one weak spot is Cruz as the aggressive Chief Grackle. His comic timing seems strained and therefore the tension in his eruption evaporates.
Perhaps the show's greatest standout is production designer Takeshi Kata, who has done a fantastic job turning the proscenium Taper stage into the Oval Office. Had Mamet only written something quite so worthy of Presidential praise.