Pardon Me...

David Mamet's Almost-Funny New Comedy 'November' Takes The Stage at the American Conservatory Theater

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David Mamet's new play "November" should be so easy to love. The American Conservatory Theater's production of the political comedy has all the ingredients of a side-splitting night at the theater. A beloved writer? Mamet's wit and humor are award-winning. An intriguing setting? Oval Office shenanigans will forever incite the American imagination. Profuse cursing? The f-bombs dropped in this play would be enough to annihalate a continent. This is a recipe for theatrical good times. Yet as hard as "November" works to be hilarious, the feeling lingers: This just ain't that funny.

A year after the last presidential election, timing could be the guilty suspect for this West Coast premiere's shortcomings. "November" tells the tale of a buffoon of a president facing re-election and sinking poll numbers. His staff is jumping ship and campaign funds have run dry. Ostensibly, this is a farcical portrait of Bush circa 2004-a failing war is one of many unsubtle hints lingering in the background. Yet President Charles Smith (the belligerent Andrew Polk) is no Bush. It boggles the imagination to think of Bush talking this animatedly or with such accurate grammar.

Mamet isn't making a statement about any specific political icon. The moral is that Washington is corrupt (gasp!) and that cash rules the day. President Smith attempts to extort a turkey industry representative (Manoel Felciano, a wonderfully funny addition to ACT's company) for the millions he needs to revive his campaign. This mission involves a frumpy, sickly, brilliant pinko lesbian speechwriter Clarice Bernstein (Rene Augesen), a deadpan chief of staff (Anthony Fusco) and a furious Native American chief (Steven Anthony Jones). The plot encircles the beloved and bizarre tradition of turkey pardoning.

This theme provides some shallow entertainment but after an act becomes too insubstantial to hold interest. Mamet clearly made a decision to drive his play with the frivolity of American politics. The play is ridiculous, but not ridiculous enough-at least until the last 10 minutes of the show, when the shit firmly hits the fan and the dialogue grows all the more maniacal.

"November" is funniest in these moments of interaction between its highly neurotic characters. But the play's three acts involve too many phone conversations, with the president barking angry monologues down the line while the others stand around reacting passively, cut out from the meat of the script. Director Ron Lagomarsino didn't have much to work with to keep these monologues rolling, but Polk did an amiable job keeping them relatively lively. Every minute of phone conversation to the "outside" was a minute less of comedy on the "inside." This is a running theme of the play: the idea that the Oval Office forms an almost-impenetrable bubble, oblivious to the happenings of America, interested only in its own political survival.

In the end, "November" somewhat abruptly tries to make a serious statement about gay marriage. The play's more sober themes often feel awkwardly forced, and most jokes are recycled, uncreative and reliant on stereotypes. Mamet's vulgar voice rings clearly through the character of President Smith but also through most of the other characters, blurring their distinctiveness. There's only so many times one can hear "fuck you!" before it ceases to be clever. The audience laughs throughout, but "November" offers little to chuckle about after the curtain falls. Though ACT has churned out a highly professional production, with an elegant set designed by Erik Flatmo imitating the Oval Office, this only slightly redeems the fact that the play moves nowhere, physically or otherwise.


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