For its first half hour or so, David Mamet's new Oval Office farce "November" is funny. Howlingly funny. This is partly because this Broadway show's singular star, Nathan Lane, has finally been cast in a role that allows him to harness his legendary comedic expansiveness with the irascible darkness of his soul. But it's mostly because Mamet -- in this latest troubling phase of his multi-faceted life -- has now reached such an advanced state of creative anarchy, it has a perversely freeing effect.
"We can't build the fence to keep out the illegal immigrants," Mamet's fake chief of staff tells his boss, Lane's President Charles Smith. "We need the illegal immigrants to build the fence."
That was worth a huge laugh at Wednesday night's celebrity-heavy performance -- one of those collective howls that can emerge when an audience feels suddenly freed from political correctness. But shortly after the gag has landed, you start to question its point and wonder where it's really aimed.
Demonstrably, Chicago's most famous theatrical son has very little emotional or political investment in the endlessly snarky "November," which he could easily have penned on his head in his bathtub, or maybe on a table-tray in first class as apparatchiks living high on the hog buzzed behind his neck.
Kept in the dark
Most satires of White House life -- from "The American President" to "The West Wing" -- eventually reveal, or betray, the ideological dreams of their creators. Not here.
You're not even entirely sure if President Smith is a Democrat or a Republican. You just know he's irredeemably corrupt. And unpopular. Or, as his right-hand man (played by the superb foil Dylan Baker) succinctly tells him: "Your numbers are lower than Gandhi's cholesterol."
"There are no solutions," declares that chief of staff whom you start to realize speaks for the author. "Only rearrangements of problems." That, I'd wager, is where Mamet currently is at. Oy.
Some will prefer to see Lane's caustic characterization as a satirical treatment of George W. Bush, but really Mamet and Lane have forged a nasty fictional president who embodies the wimpiness of George H.W. Bush, the pardoning and pandering peccadilloes of William Jefferson Clinton, and George W. Bush's apparent disregard for the tricky little details of foreign policy ("I should have thought of that," President Smith says, "when I invaded ... .Where?").
"Everybody hates you and you're out of money," Brown screams at his boss in one of the many tosses of red comedic meat to the hungry lions in the orchestra. "Go home."
The premise of "November" couldn't be more stupid or tossed off -- the main plot events involve this pathetic president trying to shake down a turkey breeder (the dude who shows up on Thanksgiving with birds seeking a pardon) for extra campaign cash (two pardoned turkeys, twice the dollars) while simultaneously trying to figure out how to snag more swag from a Native American rich guy named Dwight (Michael Nichols), without having to hand over the entire island of Nantucket for a new casino. Not that such a move would be so bad.
The major impediment to Smith's malfeasance is his lesbian speechwriter, Clarice Bernstein (played by Steppenwolf ensemble member Laurie Metcalf) who holds a crucial speech hostage to the president performing a lesbian marriage ceremony for her and her partner, which he is far from keen to do.
Mamet's willful disregard of political correctness -- one comedic strand involves Bernstein's recent trip China to adopt a baby, wherein she maybe contracted bird flu which could kill the Thanksgiving turkeys -- will infuriate some but certainly sharpens the amusements on offer.
The slowly seeping problem, though, is not just such nagging issues as to how on earth this guy ever got himself elected, but the lack of any more substantive satirical purpose. By the end, "November" starts looking like an extended premise for a situation comedy -- a kind of dark stepson of "West Wing" with a hateful president. That's fair enough, but you keep wanting this show to have something to say about something, or care about an issue, or push its characters beyond mere type.
Mamet refuses. Why should he? He got this one to a grateful Broadway. As is.
The adroit Metcalf is very funny as a lesbian with a cold who wants to get married. She nearly ties herself in knots trying to make something of that. But by the end of the night, she could well be doing an episode of "Roseanne," in which she plays, well, a lesbian with a cold. This ain't much more.
Granted, the network censors would not let Mamet's profane cynicism through. Granted, no satire is under an obligation to build up rather than merely tear down. But "November" still is another play wherein one of the greatest American playwrights barely flexed his finger muscles. It's another high-priced game by a self-aware bad boy, another snub at expectations, and another case of take-it-or-leave-it, you're-lucky-to-have-me suckers.
It's a measure of the man's incomparable talents that you still nearly kill yourself laughing at times. But given the measure of the man and the tenor of the times, you don't really leave happy. For that, you'd need a glimpse of this disappearing author's increasingly illusive guts.
"November" opened Thursday night on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. Call 212-239-6262.
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