November is a thin but amusing satire that gives hell to the chief executive

It's a few days before the election, and Charles Smith, the sitting president, is hoping for a second term. Trouble is, his poll numbers are in the toilet (or, as the script has it, "lower than Gandhi's cholesterol"), he's intensely incompetent, no one takes him seriously (even his Secret Service guys tend to go missing when he needs them), and he has no money for advertising. What Smith does have, though, is a kind of coarse, stupid venality, lots of energy, no conscience and a strong instinct for self-preservation. As David Mamet's play opens, Smith is more interested in whether his wife can keep the Oval Office couch than in the fact that Iran has just launched a nuclear strike. Called on to perform the president's annual turkey-pardoning ceremony — for which the National Association of Turkey and Turkey By-Products Manufacturers usually pays $50,000 — he tries to shake down the association for a couple of million, threatening to pardon every turkey in America if they don't pay up.

Smith peppers his conversations with homophobic and xenophobic comments, and makes several casual references to the Piggyplane, which flies anyone he decides to classify as a terrorist to torture and death in a secret Bulgarian prison. When he hears that his talented lesbian speechwriter, Clarice Bernstein, has gone to China to adopt a baby, he explodes: "What in the world do you think all these cute lil' Chinese baby girls are gonna do when they grow up, having eaten our food, learned to play the cello, bested all the white children at math, and slurped up all the jobs under affirmative action?...THESE LITTLE FUCKEN BENEDICT ARNOLDS, seeded, seeded here...by a wily Oriental nation."

In addition to Smith's struggle to remain in power — or at least to leave the office a much richer man than he came into it — the plot deals with Bernstein's desire to marry her partner and her belief that Smith can and should perform the ceremony. Mamet almost always seems to be mocking his own characters, and this play's cast is particularly one-dimensional and farcical, but Bernstein's act two entrance in a white wedding dress and holding a bouquet is oddly touching. I couldn't decide if this was the playwright's intention or a result of Laura Norman's dedicated performance, which manages to be simultaneously funny (she spends the first act sniffing morosely into a handkerchief) and genuinely sweet. Smith is a jerk, but you don't really dislike him, and Kevin Hart is convincingly squirmy and rodent-like in the role. James O'Hagan-Murphy provides steady, understated support as adviser Archer, wisely resisting the impulse to ham it up, but Daymond Caylo, alas, is a little hammy as the turkey association representative. Michael R. Duran gives us a robust Dwight Grackle, the Native American leader determined to exploit national guilt to its fullest and most remunerative.

November wants to be a robust, H.L. Mencken-tinged, plague-on-all-your-political-houses, everything's-so-corrupt-all-we-can-do-is-laugh-level satire, but it's too small-minded and thin a piece of work for that. And while it would have been honorable for Mamet to premier the play before the 2004 election, it doesn't take much guts to do it in 2008. There's something unsettling, too, about the use of torture and secret prisons for throwaway laugh lines. Still, there's plenty of clever, funny dialogue here (as well as some obvious clunkers) and enough echoes of the Bush presidency to rock the Avenue Theater with laughter.

 
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