Monday, January 21, 2008

A Vote For Mamet’s New Comedy "November"

By Tony Vellela
The industry-wide penchant for pigeon-holing actors into the same type roles once they’ve had a success in something is widely practiced. Why can’t Broadway give us Marylouise Burke as Mary Tyrone? Wouldn’t Bernadette Peters really deliver the goods as one of Tennessee Williams’ tortured women? It’s called type-casting, and it unfairly limits what artists do, and audiences see.

But what do you call it when the same mentality is applied to writers … type-writing? A quick survey of the responses to David Mamet’s new play “November” reveals that this prejudice is applied to writers as well.

It’s not clear what Mamet’s ultimate objectives were when he conceived and crafted this comedy. What is clear is that it IS a comedy, and it succeeds on that level, because however much you resist, you will laugh, again and again.

The premise unfolds with the measured pace of the ceremonial red carpet being rolled out: an historically unpopular and incompetent sitting President, abandoned by his unidentified party as he seeks a second term, and lacking funds or friends, decides to make one last stand. His wife wants a Presidential Library, his chief-of-staff wants to make a clean exit, his speechwriter wants to marry her same-sex partner on national television, and he wants respect. Nathan Lane, as Mr. President Charles Smith, inflates and deflates with the hot air volume of a Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, dispensing offensive, stupid or vacuous remarks that verify why the country hates him – vintage Nathan, crisp and delectable. As the hapless spinmeister recently returned from China to pick up her newly-adopted daughter, Laurie Metcalf stays on message, loyal to the office, scornful of the man. And holding things down in the job of keeping things ever-so-tenuously under control is the stolid Dylan Baker, portraying the President’s Best Man, keeping the right words in his boss’s mouth, and the wrong words out of the public’s earshot. While Lane and Metcalf sparkle in their roles [her physical dexterity channels film and early television comedienne Joan Davis], it is Baker that is the unsung hero of this battle of wits. His unflinching focus on making things happen, or preventing them from exploding, gives all the tale-twisting frippery a much-needed whisper of plausibility.

As the story progresses, this day-in-the-life tale pulls in the luckless rep from the turkey industry [Ethan Phillips], there to officiate at the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Pardoning Ceremony, and slip the Pres fifty grand in cash for his ‘services.’ Sensing a gravy train, the Oval officers concoct a plan to fleece him and his organization of $200 million, enough to retire and stop the First Lady’s nagging about that Library no one else thinks is remotely warranted. The unexpected arrival of a casino-craving Indian with a blowgun [Michael Nichols] triggers the resolutions. But this is a grandchild of the screwball comedies of the ‘30s in terms of plot points – how DID Hepburn’s pet leopard get loose in ‘Bringing Up, Baby’ in the first place? A generation later, did you truly believe that the despairing half of “The Odd Couple,” Felix Unger, would actually kill himself? If you’re looking for logical connections and a real-life storyline, catch Tom Stoppard’s superb political psychodrama “Rock ‘n’ Roll” two blocks south.

Comparisons to Neil Simon and Saturday Night Live miss the true origins of this format, which Mamet has certainly mastered. In addition to Hollywood screwballers, the live comedy-variety television shows from the early ‘50s, and the programs featuring those comedy masters who migrated there from radio and vaudeville laid the groundwork for “November.” Yes, Neil Simon, but it was his work as a staff writer on Sid Caeser’s “Your Show of Shows” that honed his skills, and that program pioneered the form that led to SNL. [Remember, Nathan Lane played the Caesar-inspired character in Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” about his days on that show’s manic writing team.] We should not be expecting true political satire; it’s broad but somewhat timely comedy sketch material.

Imogene Coca, Caesar’s distaff foil, once told me that a key element in making all that zaniness work was whether the performers came across as believing in the premise, however wacky. And George Burns took great pains to make me realize that his wife, Gracie Allen, was not a comedienne, but a skilled, accomplished actress, who could portray her scramble-brained character with conviction. Mamet is blessed with first-rate acting talent all around, anchored by the often underappreciated Baker.

Mamet’s only failure here is an over-reliance on profanities, which quickly become obtrusive and arch instead of comic. When they puncture the gossamer glaze that tenuously holds together this confection, he invites comparisons to the abrasive, testosterone-fueled ‘Mamet’ style.

“November,” at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, centers on a President the country has judged [however correctly] in a certain light, and put him in a box. This comedy may be the playwright’s [certainly justifiable] attempt at breaking out of his own stylistic box. They both want to be thought of in a new way. The voters have yet to decide President Smith’s fate. Mamet chalks up a victory.

November Official Website

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Tony Vellela, veteran Broadway correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, has also written for dozens of other publications, including Parade, Dramatics, USA Today, Rolling Stone, Emmy Magazine and The Saturday Review. He wrote and produced the documentary PBS series on theatre, “Character Studies.”

(Acknowledgement: these are the opinions those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Drama Book Shop.)

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find Mr. Vellela's thorough and insightful reviews extremely entertaining and informative.

9:10 PM  
Anonymous Marisa said...

Good for people to know.

3:04 PM  

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