Charles Smith is just your average, bumbling occupant of the Oval Office. Up for reelection, he doesn’t stand much of a chance of gaining a second term. His wife is already asking whether she can take one of the White House couches she had reupholstered when they leave. Even those seeking favors are apt to remind him that his poll numbers are “lower than Gandhi’s cholesterol.”
From this desperate political situation, David Mamet, playwriting’s graying enfant terrible, spins a retro farce that will have many wondering whether the ghost of Sid Caesar has taken possession of the author of such foul-mouthed dramatic landmarks as “American Buffalo” and “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Hard to imagine, however, anyone calling this exercise in genre recycling “your show of shows.”
The play, which opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, is a far cry from top drawer Mamet. When “November” premiered on Broadway in January 2008, as President George W. Bush’s second term limped to its crisis-ridden finale, it provided a kind of comic safety valve for a country teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
One might think “November,” which hatches all sorts of cockamamie ploys to keep Smith (Ed Begley Jr.) flush with enough cash so that he can remain in office, would be even more topical just a few weeks from a presidential election in which the flood of campaign dollars has transformed American democracy into a three-ring circus of shameless venality.
But the production, directed by Scott Zigler, a go-to Mamet specialist surprisingly off his game, lets the air out of the farce by treating the play not as a bouncy cartoon alternative universe but as a straightforward reflection of our political times. It may be true that beltway reality has become more outlandish than fiction, but in aiming for plausibility over punch-line pop, Zigler has taken the fizz out of the bottle.
Nathan Lane played Charles Smith on Broadway, and it would be hard to come up with an actor less presidential in his deportment. Tall, towheaded, and naturally patrician, Begley makes a far more convincing commander in chief, even one who resorts to telling his wife that Iran has launched a nuclear strike just to get her off the phone.
Unfortunately, Begley hasn’t Lane’s unerring ability to land a bull’s-eye with a zinger. His attempt to inhabit a role that isn’t much more than a sketch is commendable but misguided. Comedy is often funnier when played in a serious vein. But with Mamet, the patter of speech is everything, and in “November,” he’s in rat-tat-tat mode.
Slightly hoarse and at times appearing winded, Begley has trouble keeping pace with a farce that steadily grows more harebrained. The play conscripts a representative of the turkey industry (Todd Weeks) who’s being hit up for a whopping campaign donation and a lesbian speechwriter named Clarice Bernstein (Felicity Huffman) who threatens to withhold her crucial writing services if the president doesn’t marry her and her partner. Trust me: You don’t need to know more.
The jokes — some old, some profane, some side-splitting, some racist and dumb — are delivered by Begley in a strangely halting manner. The challenge here is verbal jujitsu, yet the acting has the studied slowness of a Stanislavsky refresher class.
Lines such as “I can resign tomorrow and my vice president — what’s his name? — will pardon me for crimes yet uninvented,” rely on pure timing, not character work. Breathless acceleration is all that’s required for questions such as “Do the Jews celebrate Thanksgiving?” or “Aren’t we at war with China?”
Much of the shtick, even when confronting contemporary concerns, has a hand-me-down feel. Take the following exchange between the president and his chief advisor, Archer (Rod McLachlan):
Archer: “We can’t build the fence to keep out the illegal immigrants.”
Charles: “Why not?”
Archer: “You need the illegal immigrants to build the fence.”
Charles: “It’s always something.”
It’s a pleasure to encounter Huffman back onstage, but like Begley she tries to give her role human lineaments and winds up undercutting the laughs. When Laurie Metcalf played the part on Broadway, she accentuated two aspects of the character, her sneezing cold and her exasperated loyalty to a president who suffers from chronic foot-in-mouth disease. Huffman presents a fuller realistic picture — you get the sense of where this woman went to college and what her throw pillows look like. But the more reality that’s brought to bear, the more ludicrous Bernstein’s tolerance of these nut cases seems.
The plot, which invokes at times George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind’s book for “Of Thee I Sing,” actually calls in an Indian chief, Dwight Grackle (Gregory Cruz) — a hoary touch that suggests Mamet is self-consciously operating in pastiche mode. And indeed he’s dabbling in a form, typing out his play on a typewriter every bit as antique as the one Bernstein inexplicably composes the president’s speeches on.
Sadly, the production is crisper to look at than to experience. The Oval Office setting by scenic designer Takeshi Kata offers just the right stately environment for the madcap high jinks to explode in. But the political commentary has all the crunch of wilted celery, and the farce drags to the finish line.
As the real life presidential contest heats up, “November,” rather than providing comic counterpoise, seems theatrically a step behind.
Where: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 4.
Contact: (213) 628-2772 or https://www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.