David Mamet's November
Timely Production by Boston's Lyric Stage Company
By: Charles Giuliano - Nov 02, 2008
By David Mamet
Directed by Daniel Gidron; Scenic Design, by Jenna McFarland Lord; Costumes by Seth Brodie; Lighting by Jeff Adelberg; Sound, Alex Brandt; Production Stage Manager, Kayla G. Sullivan; Assistant Stage Manager, Amanda Ostrow. Starring: Richard Snee (President Charles Smith), Will McGarrahan (Archer Brown), Adrianne Krstansky (Clarice Bernstein), Neil A. Casey (Turkey Industry Spokesperson), Dennis Trainor, Jr. (Dwight Grackle).
October 17 through November 15
Lyric Stage Company of Boston
140 Clarendon Street, Boston 02116
617 585 5678
What could possibly be more timely than "November" a play by David Mamet that debuted on Broadway last January, starring Nathan Lane, and is now enjoying its New England Premiere, at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through November 15.
Like George W. Bush this witty and often hilarious comedy focuses on the last days of the failed presidency of Charles Smith (Richard Snee) whose approval ratings in one of Mamet's best lines are "Lower than Gandhi's cholesterol." In the last week before a doomed reelection he is unpopular and broke. The party has abandoned him and the campaign war chest is empty. There is no money for a flurry of last minute TV spots. Even more disconcerting to Smith there is not a cent for the Presidential Library that should preserve the documents of a failed term of office.
The best advice of the President's chief of staff, Archer Brown (Will Mc Garrahan), is "Go home. They hate you." But, not to leave empty handed, there is the suggestion of some last minute, lucrative pardons. To well heeled and very guilty convicted criminals. Even to the smarmy President Smith, played raucously by the expletive laced Snee, it is an unattractive option. But a familiar golden parachute of political favors and payback for lame duck presidents.
There is, however, an unusual pardon on the day's agenda. In an annual pre Thanksgiving event, the President pardons the National Turkey; which is ritually spared to gobble through other days free as a bird. A less fortunate companion is served in the White House Dining Room.
It appears that there is an honorarium involved of some $50,000. But, this year, the National Turkey Association, through its stumbling, bumbling representative (Neil A. Casey), is requesting that two turkeys be pardoned; one as a backup in the event of any problem with the number one bird.
Warming to the potential for extortion Smith suggests that, since there are in fact two birds to be pardoned, might not the fee be doubled? Through an ever more complex turn of events the honorarium is run up to the level of $200 million. Smith proves to be a master manipulator of the value of a Presidential pardon based on the net worth of all the turkeys sold in the annual slaughter. If the harassed representative does not play along Smith will make an official edict that Pork be declared the appropriate meal for Thanksgiving.
But what about the Jews if pork is the national dish for the holiday his advisor asks? "F--- them" is Smith's politically incorrect response. Ditto to the Arabs. During the run of the play Mamet skewers just about every race, sex, and creed. All of course in good fun. Not to say, however, that such foul discourse is a stranger to the Oval Office. The Nixon tapes gave ample evidence of Presidential profanity. And Lyndon Johnson was known to conduct staff meetings while grunting on the can. So, however wonderfully over the top, Snee's broad interpretation of President Smith, is entirely plausible.
With the Turkey Industry on the ropes for this mega payoff Smith is presented with the option of either building the Presidential Library or, in an all in poker move, throwing the chips toward a massive last minute media buy in a desperate bid for winning the election.
To pull this off he relies on the unique ability of the speech writer Clarice Bernstein (Adrianne Krstansky). It seems, however, that in the face of an inevitable loss she has gone AWOL; to China and back, to adopt a baby. In that travel she has contracted a terrible flu, and when contacted by phone, pleads to be allowed to stay home with her female partner and new baby. By Presidential order she is dragged into the Oval Office.
A disheveled Bernstein arrives wheezing and sneezing. Seth Brodie has dressed her as a kind of lesbian bag lady. The direction of Daniel Gidron has saddled Bernstein with a terribly nasal cold. Kratansky never seems to get out from under these impediments. During most of her scenes, when she spars with Smith, Clarice seems to flail about and that ersatz cold often makes it difficult to grasp her lines. Even though she manages to manipulate Smith into going on national TV to endorse her "Boston Marriage" the contest of wits is never credible. The broad humor is pushed too far during the second act when she appears in a generic wedding gown.
It seems that Bernstein will not complete that brilliant speech, with a huge payoff for President Smith, unless he will marry her on national TV just before he pardons the Turkey. Here the writing bogs down as the gag has overstayed its welcome. Archer Brown reminds the President that to marry two women is "illegal." In fact, a blatant crime as one the last acts of his Presidency. Just a small detail Smith seems to feel with his eyes on the prize of a huge payoff.
As the mostly amusing but flawed play runs its course the comedy becomes ever more farcical. While squeezing the Turkey Industry, and negotiating with Bernstein, he has also been haggling with an Indian Chief. By the time the Chief, Dwight Grackle (Dennis Trainor, Jr.), enters the play has gone belly up, total gonzo. Which is completely absurd but you can't help laughing. A lot.
Yes, there is a lot that is wrong about this new Mamet play. It is not one of his best. In a lot of ways it seems like a rewrite of the film "Wag the Dog." But it provided a nicely amusing diversion from the reality of the actual mess in the Oval Office. The success of this production was mostly sustained by the superb performance of Richard Snee who often seemed all too plausibly Presidential. He confirms our worst fears. Will McGarrahan, the President's advisor, was perfectly apt as the straight man feeding lines that Snee often knocked out of the park. They were a great tandem. Neil A. Casey had many fine moments as the inept Turkey representative. Dennis Trainor, Jr. was good grief, a cartoon as the Indian Chief. And Krstansky, as the lesbian speech writer, well, nice try.
Mamet too often has Smith and Brown on the phone. It may be a way of creating unseen characters, such as the First Lady, but this was overused. It tended to drag the action. Overall, this was a game and lively effort to present fresh theatre and contemporary issues. For that, much thanks to Lyric Stage Company. Even though a flawed play, heck, it was no worse than the past eight years. It's time for a change. And that's no joke.