Monday, January 21, 2008

Nathan Lane for President

Written by David Mamet
Directed by Joe Mantello
Starring Nathan Lane, Dylan Baker, Laurie Metcalf, Michael Nichols and Ethan Phillips

Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street
Performances began December 20, 2007


I’m happy to report that David Mamet–he of the tough, cryptic dialogue and plays almost exclusively (and to their eternal detriment) focused on assorted male low-lifes, has-beens and never-weres, rarely making them sympathetic or getting audiences involved in their wheeling and dealing –has surprisingly dropped his former mannered self for the mantle of farceur extraordinaire.

Yes, Mamet’s newest play November is an hilariously unbridled and politically incorrect farce of the first order, treating the president of the United States and the Oval Office with the irreverence and disdain it has earned in the past two terms. To reviewers upset over the loss of the characteristic Mamet style that gave us overrated plays like American Buffalo, Edmond, Oleanna and–most famously–Glengarry Glen Ross and replaced by unsubtle, bluntly comic schtick, I say, “Tough!

Romance, the playwright’s Marx Brothers-ish romp through a wacky courtroom drama, was the highlight of the 2005 Atlantic Theater Company season. In similar fashion, November finds Mamet happily sloshing around in ethnic jokes, sexual stereotypes and his own gloss on recent political history to create a crazed comedy unafraid to get down and dirty, moving so quickly that its occasional failed jokes are soon forgotten.

As with all good farce, November traffics in ludicrous situations and characters which are simultaneously lunatic and realistic enough for us to laugh along with–as well as at–them. President Charles Smith is days away from losing his re-election bid, mostly because–as his no-nonsense advisor Archer Brown continuously reminds him–he has screwed up everything since he came into office four years earlier; his poll numbers are–as he’s reminded later–“lower than Gandhi’s cholesterol.”

In a last-ditch attempt to raise much needed cash for a last-minute TV ad push before Election Day, the president attempts to extort the representative of an organization for which he pardons a lucky turkey every Thanksgiving. In exchange for $200 million, the president will not give a fabricated speech that basically throws Thanksgiving under the bus because of its unAmerican racist, patriarchal connotations. That speech is being written by his brilliant speechwriter, Clarice Bernstein–who, needless to say, is a lesbian who has just returned from China with bird flu after she and her life partner flew there to adopt a baby.

The set-up and situations are put in place adroitly by Mamet, who also gives a group of masterly comic actors the chance to strut their stuff–which they gleefully do, thanks to Joe Mantello’s on-target direction. As the butt of many jokes, Ethan Phillips (the turkey guy) and Michael Nichols (a Micmac tribal chief–don’t ask) prove to good sports and even give as good as they get.

As the prez’s speechwriter, Laurie Metcalf makes a long overdue return to Broadway–for much of her time onstage, she seems to be simply sneezing and sniffling (bird flu, remember?), but she does that and so much more with impeccable timing and minute variations that keep her characterization from ever slipping into shrill caricature, which is of course how her author conceived the role.

Dylan Baker plays Archer Brown, the president’s right-hand man, with a thorough command of the peculiar rhythms–even here, we have those strangely-accented conversations that have their own cadences. The dry, droll Baker confidently and hilariously delivers the clever Mamet retorts with a devastating deadpan style.

Then there is POTUS in the form of Nathan Lane. Never one to waste a chance to ham it up onstage, Lane does that in spades–his eyebrow raisings are especially lethal–but he is also as disciplined and commanding a comic actor currently going. He too can sling Mamet’s obscenity-heavy dialogue around (yes, even in the playwright's farces certain f-ing habits die hard), and he’s at his absolute peak during several lengthy monologues as he speaks on the phone with his wife (who spreads the lie he told her to get her off the line, that Iran dropped the bomb) or the Israeli ambassador–during these, Lane’s voice inflections and pitch-perfect comic timing are a textbook in how to do comedy right.

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