â€œWhy do they hate me?â€ wails Nathan Lane as the fictional (but not too fictional) President Charles H.P. Smith, early in David Mametâ€™s new political comedy November. The reply comes without hesitation from Dylan Baker, playing Smithâ€™s loyal subordinate in crime: â€œBecause youâ€™ve fucked up everything youâ€™ve ever touched.â€
Like I said, the play, which opens tonight at Broadwayâ€™s Ethel Barrymore Theatre, isnâ€™t too fictional.
Yes, Lane is prowling a Broadway stage once again this season. And once again heâ€™s a thespian Godzilla chewing up scenery, full of bluster and bullshit and brillianceâ€”and enough spittle to make the first five rows wonder if theyâ€™ve stumbled into a Gallagher concert. Heâ€™s President Max Bialystock, and he dominates November the same way he commanded The Producers way back when, at the dawn of the $480 ticket. Here’s the play’s website, and here’s a video from the first day of rehearsals.
I saw November in previews a couple weeks ago, so Iâ€™ll refrain as much as possible from reviewing the production (you can no doubt find reviews on Friday here and here and here). Mametâ€™s not traditionally a big tinkerer, though, so itâ€™s safe to say that the play is pretty much what it was at New Yearâ€™s: a send-up of familiar presidential foibles focused squarely on the ridiculous, with just a sprinkle of Serious Issues to make you think, just for a minute, that Mametâ€™s looking to make you think.
George W. Bush is everywhere in November, even though his name is never mentioned and Laneâ€™s Charles Smith is decidedly his own (mockery of a) man. Smith, who as the play opens is just days away from a sound thumpinâ€™ in his bid for re-election, is a royal fuck-upâ€”his every decision based on how it will benefit him personally, his attention to either detail or the public mood missing in action, the results predictably disastrous.
November centers, in large part, on Smith hatching a hilariously ass-backward scheme to wring a pile of campaign cash from the ritual of pardoning a turkey for Thanksgiving. Never mind that, in the real world, the election would have been won or lost long before a gobbler could be spared the axe; such are Smithâ€™s (and Mametâ€™s) priorities that a debate over legalizing same-sex marriage, not to mention an assassination attempt, hinge on the extorted farmers deciding whether or not theyâ€™re going to talk turkey.
This isnâ€™t Mametâ€™s first foray into presidential politics; a decade ago he wrote the screenplay for Wag the Dog, a movie that Republicans made famous even before it was released in 1997. That film, in case anyoneâ€™s forgotten, concerns a political strategist who cooks up a war with Albania to distract attention from a presidential sex scandal. Conservativesâ€”in their rabid, Javert-like obsession with pinning something (anything) on Bill Clintonâ€”first screamed â€œWag the Dogâ€ during the fall of 1997, when Iraq threw out U.N. weapons inspectors just as the GOP was trumping up its â€œLincoln bedroomâ€ fundraising attacks. Then, during the Monica year of 1998, every U.S. military action was seen as an attempt to distract the public from the unfolding scandal; the timing of a missile attack on Al Qaeda targets (just after Clinton admitted it was his spunk on Monicaâ€™s dress) and a bombing campaign in Iraq (just as House Republicans launched impeachment proceedings) didnâ€™t help any.
In Wag the Dog, Mamet was fortunate enough to reflect, even to anticipate eventsâ€”the same way that, in an earlier era, Gore Vidal prophesized a new era of shallow, character-driven politics in his 1960 Broadway and 1964 film hit The Best Man (which was revived to great effect in 2000) and Tim Robbins foresaw the craven Republican Revolution in 1992â€™s Bob Roberts.
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November, on the other hand, is reactive in nature, and not too quick on the draw at that: Itâ€™s a play about a flailing re-election bid that arrives in a year when the White Houseâ€™s current, un-elected but then somehow re-elected occupant is (thank our lucky stars) certain to leave.
Yes, we can hope that the sins of President Smithâ€™s real-life inspiration will prove the undoing of his entire party. But as satisfying as Wag the Dog‘s appearance must have been to Republican conspiracy theorists in 1997-98, November doesnâ€™t inspire the same giddy anticipation of a prophesy realized. Instead, this viewer (for one) could only see it as an exercise in belated liberal wish fulfillment.
In other words, November arrives about four years too late. Of course, in 2004 the play would have served as just one more example of the culture piling on Mr. Bush (as I described in an earlier post), and a lot of good that did. November may well be too slight a show to have any more of an impact this year than pop cultureâ€™s Bush-bashing did in â€™04; indeed, near its conclusion the play verges on making a Big Statement about healing divisions and using power to benefit society, but Mamet consciously pulls back and refocuses on President Smithâ€™s craving for the spoils of that power.
The results are hilarious, but less than completely fulfilling. November is a fun night of theater and, in President Smith, Mamet and Lane have created a political monster whose maneuverings are impossibly over the top, yet paradoxically all too realistic. But I found myself wishing Mamet had at some point gone ahead and made that Big Statement, and offered his president a redemption the likes of wish our president is surely incapable.
It is a measure of how far weâ€™ve fallen that November, a play conceived and played purely as farce, ventures so close to truths about the past eight years that currently donâ€™t seem funny at all. We can only hope that someday they will.