Disillusioning America


The big, explosive laughter that starts early in David Mamet’s November is of a kind I haven’t heard in decades: It’s the laughter of people who’ve been granted an unexpected degree of public permission. As everybody now knows, Mamet’s new comedy deals with an incumbent president campaigning for re-election with poll numbers “lower than Gandhi’s cholesterol” (the line’s been much quoted, but who can resist?). Though the action takes place now, in a U.S. at war in Iraq, President Charles Smith (Nathan Lane) is not particularly George W. Bush. He resembles the Shrub, however, in being a complete disaster. When he asks plaintively why everyone’s turned against him, his chief counsel, Archer Brown (Dylan Baker), tells him curtly: “Because you’ve fucked up everything you’ve touched.”

That’s the detonation, and I won’t spoil any of the subsequent explosions in the chain of laughs it triggers as Smith rolls his disastrous self from mess to increasing mess, till persistence and luck turn his disaster into a sort of muck-coated triumph. The cartoon situation and the sordidly happy ending may be the matter at hand, but they’re not what November is about. Its existence onstage is predicated on our desperate need to laugh, and to share our laughter, at the real-life disaster the current administration has made of our existence as a nation. Here we are, the despised of the world, mired in an endless unwinnable war, our economy sinking rapidly into a depression, our environment in tatters, our civil rights shredded, most of the government agencies we rely on for protection corrupted beyond belief by White House–generated partisanship and bigotry, and the rich, with presidential sanction, robbing us blind. No administration in our history has ever been this crooked, this selfish, or this oblivious to any concerns beyond its own greed and that of its corporate cronies. In order to hope that the noxious fumes of the Bush administration might actually be dissipated through the democratic process, the first thing we need is exactly the kind of large, loud, communal laugh that November supplies.

Such laughs can’t be triggered by the gritty details of Bush’s vileness, which hurt too much to be funny, while a satirical rendering of them would breed only pained grimaces. Instead, Mamet’s created a cartoon analogue for presidential corruption, not specific to either party, tossing in actual issues only insofar as they further his farcical plot. He’s grasped the central notion of American politics: It’s about money and imagery, not issues. For an election to be about issues, you need an educated populace. Where Europe has an educational system, we have TV; dollars buy the airtime by which images are promoted. President Smith’s goal is to raise the big bucks that his campaign committee, smelling defeat, has stopped shelling out. To get them, he initiates what burgeons into a crisscrossing chain of blackmail, bribery, threats, and trade-offs as it winds around poultry producers, Chinese adoption mills, Native American casinos, and secret CIA prisons in Bulgaria, occasionally colliding with some halfway honorable person’s attempt to act on principle—an effort, in this context, about as useful as trying to read The Federalist Papers aloud during a performance of Room Service.

The naked corruption, always leaping further toward cartoon implausibility, licenses the laughter. Listening to it, while watching Lane’s button eyes glisten with greed and his nose point up like a bird dog’s whenever the scent of cash wafts onstage, I was taken back to a dank Sunday afternoon in 1967, at the old Village Gate, where I heard the same kind of laughs explode around me while I guffawed in amazement at Stacy Keach, playing a bloodstained Shakespearean monarch with a yew-all accent in Barbara Garson’s MacBird!. Mamet’s cartoon, built on sturdier lines and addressing a wider audience than Garson’s, eschews contentious issues, though it never hesitates to breach taste barriers. Its unremitting stream of profanity and ethnic slurs, like its money-centered action, confirms America’s worst suspicions about those who strive to look “presidential.” Joe Mantello’s production, barring an occasional awkward patch, keeps the animated action figures moving speedily, with Lane’s eager, bounce-back clownishness elegantly balanced by Baker’s immaculate deadpan and the hilariously convincing sniffles of Laurie Metcalf as an ailing speechwriter with her own agenda to push.

Nobody looks less presidential than the people of William Inge’s 1949 “pathetic comedy,” Come Back, Little Sheba. Inge’s folk are America’s small-timers: oldsters trying vainly to keep up illusions long since worn out; energetic youngsters building up the illusions that will wear them down as they age. The truth, like the lovable puppy of the title, has long since deserted them. Only Lola (S. Epatha Merkerson), a hapless, slovenly housewife tied in loving resentment to her alcoholic failure of a husband, Doc (Kevin Anderson), still wistfully calls after it.

The past, where she was pretty and Doc was promising, is Lola’s booze. Feeling trapped in the marriage, both fixate on their boarder, Marie (Zoe Kazan), an attractive young art student with a rich fiancé out of town and a hunky local for interim use. Doc, idealizing Marie’s “purity,” resents the hunk; doting Lola frets about Marie’s double game. But Marie can take care of herself; when Doc finds out what she’s up to, it’s the bottle and then Lola that he attacks. Once Marie’s gone, calm’s restored, maybe this time without illusions. Maybe.

Michael Pressman’s revival for MTC, with its biracial casting, gives Inge’s sad little fable an extra twist: Doc’s having married “beneath him” now involves crossing what was, in 1949, still a major social and legal barrier. This gives the couple’s acceptance by everyone else a queasy underpinning—which helps, since Pressman’s production, with its steady
forward drive, doesn’t always leave space for the silent loneliness that wells up
in the interstices. Merkerson, always touching and real, seems less inattentive to her housework than busy dealing with the minor characters who bustle nonstop in and out. She also derives less pain than Lola needs from Anderson, a big, burly, healthy-looking fellow who seems, till the last act, the optimistic opposite of a recovering alcoholic. Kazan’s imperturbable Marie, too, could use a hint of the dark currents below her surface sweetness. Brenda
Wehle, as Lola’s less-than-admiring next-door neighbor, supplies Merkerson’s best seconding; the air in their brief scenes together runs thick with unspoken comment.

In Ethan Coen’s Almost an Evening, contrariwise, the air runs thin and empty during the large gaps between the lines. Coen’s three meager sketches derive from glib stereotypes that stay unexplored as the sketches plod their predictable way to equally meager punch lines. A lot of good actors are wasted on this arid piece of ego-indulgence; only F. Murray Abraham, as a temperamental actor playing an equally temperamental Old Testament God, gets a few blessed chances to show off. Don’t waste your time.

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