Review: Think This Presidential Season Is Funny? See November!

Sam Gilstrap in November.
Sam Gilstrap in November.

David Mamet, the caustic playwright who’s an unapologetic right-winger these days, has always liked to offend, and he does so with brilliant scripts filled with intelligent, jazzy and sometimes incisive dialogue. His November, now showing at the Avenue Theater, premiered in 2008, as George W. Bush’s second term was coming to an end. A hilarious sendup of a venal, ignorant presidency, the play sends laugh lines flying into the audience as fast and merciless as sharp-edged hailstones. The play doesn’t seem to have anything much beyond than the vapidity and stupidity of United States politics in general on its mind, though. Mamet doesn’t appear to be tut-tutting and doesn’t reveal a point of view; he utilizes neither the gravitas of The West Wing’s President Jed Bartlett nor the kind of pointed zingers launched by Larry Wilmore at the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner. He’s simply suggesting that the situation is hopeless and you might as well laugh.

And there couldn’t be a better time for helpless laughter than now, when half the world is laughing hysterically at the idea of a President Donald Trump and the other half is cowering in terror — while we in the U.S. are contemplating an ugly battle between two of the most unpopular candidates in our history and the nature of the political system that put them in place.

Puzzled and saddened by his own unpopularity, of which adviser Archer Brown (a coldly efficient and power-hungry Eric Mather) seems to enjoy reminding him (“Your numbers are lower than Gandhi’s cholesterol”), President Charles Smith (Kevin Hart) is in the Oval Office, mulling over his chances for a second term. He summons his speechwriter, Bernstein (Amie MacKenzie), to come instantly and work up some helpful verbiage for his speeches, even though she’s just returned from China, where she and her partner adopted a baby, and is nursing a miserable cold. Since it’s just before Thanksgiving, two turkeys await Smith’s pardon in the outer room, and periodically the representative of the turkey association, Turkey Guy (a very amusing Bernie Cardell), runs in to remind Smith that these turkeys need to smell his hand in advance so that they’re habituated and don’t panic at the moment of pardon. Smith is ignorant about politics — he can’t really remember which countries he’s invaded or even whether we’re at war with China — but cunning about money, and what he smells here is opportunity. What is this photo op worth to the turkey industry, he wonders. How can he wring more money out of them? And then there’s Dwight Grackle (a strong performance by Sam Gilstrap), the Native American who wants to buy Nantucket Island for his tribe’s hotel casino.

You can’t really hate President Smith, even when he threatens to have those who cross him killed or sent, hooded and shackled, to a Bulgarian black site to be tortured and disappeared. He doesn’t seem sadistic in the way that many of us suspected George W. Bush was — just dumb and unimaginative. And besides, the entire evening is too absurdly, side-splittingly over the top. In the Broadway production, Smith was played by Nathan Lane, who, I’m sure, was highly comical. But I can’t help thinking that Hart, whose strong performance anchors the evening, is a better actor for the role. He actually looks presidential, and his voice sounds educated and intelligent — all of which makes his words sound doubly, mirthfully and unbelievably stupid.

In 2008, Mamet wrote an article for the Village Voice titled “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal,’” but perhaps he was still somewhat on the fence, because poor sneezing Bernstein, the lesbian idealist, turns out to be President Smith’s most potent opponent. MacKenzie, whom we don’t see nearly often enough on Denver stages, makes the speech writer a caricature, but a very human one, and her sneezes and sniffles are so convincing that I swear I left the theater wondering if I felt a sore throat coming on.
It’s in Smith’s dealings with Bernstein that you sense just the smallest stirring of kindliness and empathy in this obtuse president, and perhaps even in the entire play. Though if it is there, I’m pretty sure Mamet didn’t mean it.

November, presented at the Avenue Theater through May 21, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925. avenuetheater.com.

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