To paraphrase one of this season’s revered playwrights, Mark Twain, the death of the star vehicle has been greatly exaggerated. Amidst the extraordinary ensemble vehicles of Tracy Letts, Conor McPherson, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard, comes November, the crowd-pleasing comedy in which David Mamet — of all people — has fashioned a leading role for Nathan Lane with the kind of tailoring skill rarely even seen on Savile Row.
Lane, who is never offstage for the show’s nearly two-hour running time, chews with supreme, unbridled gusto into the plum role of Charles H.P. “Chuck” Smith, the soon-to-be-unelected President of the United States. Smith is a man with exceedingly low morals, intelligence, tact, or ethics — and a decidedly Mametian propensity for the “F word.” Ensconced in the Oval Office (well designed by Scott Pask), Smith desperately bounces from scheme to scheme in an effort to raise money for his Presidential library — or perhaps even one last, slim chance of re-election. Extorting money from the National Association of Turkey Manufacturers? Why not? They won’t hand over enough moolah? Then why not convince a Native American chief to say the Pilgrims ate codfish instead of turkey on Thanksgiving — and called it tuna by accident.
Aided by his old pal, director Joe Mantello, Lane pulls every single one of his copious acting tricks out of the bag in impersonating Smith (whom Mamet has been quoted as saying is not meant to be George W. Bush). He blusters, bellows, cowers, scoops, and double-takes, whether or not the occasion demands it. It’s a masterful display of both physical and verbal dexterity — and one that goes a long way into sending some of Mamet’s many one-liners, hurled at the audience with the kind of speed that would make Neil Simon blush, into the virtual stratosphere. True, one must bring a willingness to laugh at oneself — and virtually every ethnic, religious, and racial group on the planet — into the theater, as Mamet tosses off one politically incorrect (and certainly insincere) remark after another. Heck, even Scandinavians are not safe from Mamet’s barbed tongue.
As much as November is designed as a showcase for Lane, the play relies on the considerable acumen of its supporting players — including Ethan Phillips, Michael Nichols, and an especially effective Dylan Baker as Lane’s lawyer, advisor, and confidant — as worthy foils for the star. The one character — and performer — that most grounds the work, however, is Clarice Bernstein, Smith’s beleaguered lesbian Jewish speech writer, who has just returned from adopting a baby in China and wants nothing more than to be legally married to her partner. Played with consummate artistry by the game (and too long-absent) Laurie Metcalf, Bernstein provides the work with someone to root for — or at least, not completely despise.
In the show’s few quiet moments — and there are very few — when one can reflect on the goings-on, it becomes apparent that Mamet isn’t saying much that’s new about politics or human nature. Nor is the work as different from the rest of Mamet’s oeuvre as it initially appears. All five of the characters are hustlers, dealmakers, even con artists — just dressed up in different clothing (such as the overflowing wedding gown that costumer Laura Bauer saddles Metcalf in for the second act) than in Mamet’s superficially darker works.
November is unlikely to win Mamet another Pulitzer Prize; in fact, his other recent attempt at out-and-out comedy, Romance, is ultimately a better play. And, in a season where Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, Rufus Sewell, and Terrence Howard are treading the boards in dramatic fare, it probably won’t earn Lane another Tony Award. But odds are, it will still be running past November — no matter who ends up in the real Oval Office.