It is easiest to think of November, currently at the Barrymore Theatre, as an Entertainment in Time of Carnival. For a few hours, audience members get to laugh at and applaud the equal-opportunity tossing of any number of rotten eggs at any number of sacred cows, in a pitch-perfect production (designed by Scott Pask, costumed by Laura Bauer, and lighted by Paul Gallo). So seamless is the collaboration between David Mamet's writing and Nathan Lane's acting that it's impossible to parcel out praise for the whirling devilry.
Once upon a time, plays were written for immediate production, and only a few held onto the imagination of actors and impresarios tightly enough to inspire revival. Topicality was no failing in those days. Now the balance has tipped too far in the other direction; to be worthy of a Broadway production, shows must be written sub specie aeternitatis. November may well turn out to be so tuned to its time (and to its cast) that it will flop like a dead fish the very next time a bunch of Andy Hardys decides to mount it, but I refuse to hold that against it. As a dramatic comedy, November pretty thin, but that's fine, too, because it isn't a dramatic comedy.
Such plotting as there is serves as the merest trifle of a pretext for parading before us an adorably awful President of the United States, a Chief Executive with the conscience of a virus who appears to have wallowed up to his neck in the vices of every administration going back to Grant. The evening's fictional occupant of the Oval Office, reduced by the abandonment of his supporters to scraping up some very dubious cash to pay for last-minute re-election spots, may be called "Charles Smith," but this scantily all-purpose name barely conceals the man's true identity: he is EveryPrez. It doesn't matter what your politics are, so long as you have some — in other words, so long as you're not shy about laughing at power. November is a bi-partisan tickler.
That said, the audience erupted in something approaching pandemonium at the following exchange, no more than two or three minutes into the show:
President: Why do they hate me so?
White House Counsel: Because you've fucked up everything you've done.
It would miss the spirit of Carnival to pretend that the whooping and hollering wasn't aimed at the Incumbent.
Having disclosed two of November's five parts (they're played by Mr Lane and Dylan Baker, respectively), I'll name another: Speechwriter Clarice Bernstein (known only as "Bernstein" and played by Laurie Metcalf). Ms Metcalf's way with a wedding dress makes it look like the Halloween costume of a little girl's dreams, realized at last by a stroke of pure theatrical magic. I absolutely decline to identify the remaining two parts, played by Ethan Phillips and Michael Nichols. Both actors are capable of standing alongside the three front-line veterans. Mr Phillips can turn from obsequious to censorious on a dime, and Mr Nichols brings the house down with a delightful surprise entrance. More than that you need not know about this play, if you'll just trust me that it will leave you satisfied that a rough human justice has been, if not meted out, then at least enacted. And as long as you've got the sense of humor to accept that, like all the best Carnival sprees, the joke's on you. (April 2008)
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