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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

"Couldn't we make it rain or something, just to keep the other guys from voting?"— President Charles Smith

Ed Begley, Jr., Rod McLachlan, Felicity Huffman (Photo: Craig Schwartz)
David Mamet has written a coruscating satire on presidential politics. It's called Wag the Dog. His screenplay earned him an Academy Award nomination. A decade later, he went back to the well for the election-themed play November. Despite diminished returns, the Los Angeles premiere provides a steady stream of laughs.

The situation is comically ripe for the double-taking. A week away from the vote, the despised President Charles Smith (Ed Begley, Jr.) will do anything to win a second term — or at least walk away with cash in hand and a library in his name.

To get votes, he needs the eloquence of his speech writer Clarice Bernstein (Felicity Huffman). She refuses to fork over her crowning achievement until he presides over her marriage to her lesbian fiancee. And he has to do it on TV as a preamble to the yearly event in which he'll pardon two turkeys.

To get money, Smith puts the squeeze on the National Association of Turkey & Turkey By-Products Manufacturers. If they don't agree to pay two hundred million dollars, the president will use the TV event to reveal that the authentic Thanksgiving entree is cod or pork or anything Native-American chief Dwight Grackle (Gregory Cruz) will agree to.

It's all good fodder for politically incorrect farce, but less fresh than Mamet's other recent stage comedies,Romance and Boston Marriage. They too feature same-sex relationships but treat them with more verve.

Even at its best, Mamet's funny bone doesn't cook up as much flavorful entertainment as his spleen. Teach's entrance in American Buffalo - —“Fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie" — is etched in theater history. Several lines in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross have made the increasingly rare cross-over to the culture-at-large. First and foremost is “A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing, always be closing.”

November offers such exchanges as “We can’t build the fence to keep out the illegal immigrants . . . You need the illegal immigrants to build the fence.” This gets guffaws but is most effective as proof that Mamet could conquer yet one more genre: writing Jay Leno monologues.

Mamet's distinctive sensibility comes through sporadically. The program lists the play's location as “an office.” One can see, on entering the theater, that it's perhaps the most important in the land, the Oval Office. For the brass knuckle playwright though, it's no different than most of his other settings. It may be better upholstered, but this is just a rounder arena of dog-eat-dog one-upmanship.

President Smith battles and cajoles special interests to serve his own needs. He seems inspired by George W. Bush but all specifics have been omitted, including party affiliation. Mamet's not pulling his punches. He's broadening the target. Smith is a politician, impure and way simple.

The turkey industry lobbyist (Todd Weeks), the Native-American chief, and the affianced Bernstein are his antagonists. They'd be good grist for the satirical mill if Mamet didn't undercut them.

The legitimacy of Bernstein's desire to be married with child, recently adopted from China, is held to be self-evident. The turkey rep loves his turkeys. Only Chief Grackle rises to the energy level necessary to sustain any comic momentum. He threatens to harpoon Smith with a poison dart unless he cedes half of Nantucket as reparation for Smith's racist comments.

The original Broadway production transcended the play's challenges by casting actors who naturally go for the gusto. Nathan Lane was unlike any known president, besides the ineffectual blowhards of 30's musicals like Let 'Em Eat Cake. But he knows how to work an audience as well as Clinton can work his.

The few assets Mamet bestows on the underwritten Bernstein — a cold and a wedding dress billowing under a down jacket — were enough for Laurie Metcalf to annex a large segment of the comic territory. Dylan Baker's consummate sleaze as Smith's legal counsel Archie rooted us in the political sphere.

Director Scott Zigler has cast actors who have a talent for downplaying, which exacerbates the play's deficiencies. Felicity Huffman heroically grounded both TV's Desperate Housewives and the film Transamerica, where she played a pre-operative transexual. She has a natural waspy ease. She was not born to play Clarice Bernstein. She's got a good wig, a fine sneeze, and an affection for the liberal's beliefs. But she hasn't yet found a rock solid center from which she can confidently expand.

Mamet regular Rod McLachlan gives off naturalistic blue color vibes as Smith's omnipresent consigliere Archer Brown. Like Huffman, he understands the rhythms of the play and doesn't push. But he's saddled with such obvious, but laugh-generating, exchanges as "You broke the machine." to Charles's "You saw the polls, how bad can my numbers be?" The character could use either a slickness or an even more down-and-dirty vibe to lift the proceedings. McLachlan lands in-between, which limits his contribution.

Begley, one of Hollywood's better known liberals, has made a career of playing moony idealists. His natural dreaminess keeps us from rejecting the corrupt Smith. The sharp-witted Nathan Lane had difficulty giving credence to Smith's inanities. Begley's absent-mindedness provides a fitting platform for such lines as, “Aren't we at war with China?”

The production's only surprise is Begley's ever-so-slight edge. He doesn't comment on Smith's corruption and prejudices, but happily doesn't soft-pedal them either. He's an empty suit with a grasp of nothing but a desire to stay afloat.

Begley's not extroverted enough to demonstrate the shifts in Smith's interior life on his own. He needs outsized performances to play off. He fares best with Gregory Cruz's energetic Grackle and Todd Weeks' turkey rep. Huffman's earnestness gives him less opportunity to delineate his growing support for her cause. Their scenes fall into the trap of the writing. They're funny and convincing without being distinctive.

Whatever momentum the actors build up in any of the three scenes dissipates in Zigler's silent transitions. But they gives us time to admire the production's one unmitigated glory. Takeshi Kata's set makes magnificent use of the Taper's round stage.

I enjoyed November but will have little memory of it come November.

Written by David Mamet
Directed by Scott Zigler

Cast: Ed Begley, Jr., Gregory Cruz, Felicity Huffman, Rod McLachlan, and Todd Weeks
Scenic Design by Takeshi Kata
Costume Design by Laura Bauer
Lighting Design by Josh Epstein
Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission
Mark Taper Forum 135 N. Grand Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90012 213.972.4400
Closing November 4, 2012
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