Turkeys in the White House: Elite’s “November” Elicits Laughs

REVIEW BY CARY GINELL

What would happen if Archie Bunker got elected president? David Mamet’s 2008 play November, which continues at the Elite Theatre Company through November 2, attempts to answer that question in a fast-moving, raunchy farce about an opportunistic buffoon trying to get re-elected. Mamet, who is known for his scatalogical dialogue, leaves no F-bomb undropped as the epithets fly willy-nilly around a panicked Oval Office, as irascible President Charles Smith tries to raise a last-minute war chest to save his flagging re-election campaign. 

President Smith’s first term has been an abysmal failure, as reflected by the popularity polls, with his approval numbers “lower than Gandhi’s cholesterol.” Smith has accomplished nothing in office and realizes his only chance for victory is a “Hail Mary” desperation speech on the eve of Election Day. Assisted by his harried chief of staff and his lesbian speechwriter, Smith rants and cajoles, trying to find a way out of his self-imposed dilemma. 

The estimable Ron Rezac works hard as Smith, but the irony of his performance is that he looks too presidential. One wonders what Mamet had in mind for this detestable character until you find out that it was originally played on Broadway by Nathan Lane. When you have a face and comic ability that Lane possesses, audiences know to expect wild satire, but with Rezac, we are initially more shocked by his behavior than inspired to hilarity. Smith is racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic, with apparently no redeeming qualities. His best lines appear to be left over from All in the Family, as when he says “Women have rights, just like regular human beings.” The character, like Carroll O’Connor’s Bunker, needs to be lovable in his ineptitude and ignorance to make this work, but all we get from Rezac is vitriol. His main interests, in addition to getting a second term, are how to line his own pockets and to get a presidential library. To Smith, presidential diplomacy doesn’t mean negotiating peace treaties, but shaking down lobbyists for donations to his campaign. He rails about getting no respect but doesn’t deserve it. How did this creep get elected anyway, we ask ourselves. Thankfully, Rezac’s supreme acting abilities manage to keep the audience engaged, and even though we don’t root for him, we still wonder how he can pull off his election miracle.

In the end, Mamet’s carpet-bombing of expletives isn’t really necessary – the play’s funniest lines don’t involve epithets anyway, such as when Smith calms a frantic Israeli ambassador down by saying, “You’ve been around 2,000 years, you’re going to be fine.” When Smith suggests the U.S. stop illegal immigration by building a fence on the Mexican border, Archer responds, “We can’t build the fence to keep out the illegal immigrants – you need the illegal immigrants to build the fence.”

David Colville plays chief of staff Archer Brown, who calls his boss “Chuckie” and tries to work damage control over the president’s impulsive but brainless schemes. Laura Ring plays Clarice Bernstein, the president’s speechwriter, the only sympathetic character in the show. Mamet gives his noblest lines to Bernstein, as she attempts to justify Smith’s ludicrous plan to pardon millions of Thanksgiving turkeys in exchange for a financial contribution by an exasperated turkey lobbyist, well-played by John Eslick. Even Bernstein has an angle; she will only write the election-saving speech if Smith sanctions her wedding to her lesbian partner.

There is a rhythm to Mamet’s script that is almost musical. Director Tom Eubanks has done a masterful job keeping the quickly moving dialogue well-paced; Rezac and Colville’s lines smoothly overlap one another, and they exhibit excellence chemistry together, especially in Act II, when, with shirtsleeves rolled up, they sequester themselves in the Oval Office while Bernstein works on her speech, the president coloring with crayons to while away the time and Archer sipping from a Carl’s Jr. cup, munching on popcorn, and playing Mousetrap. In Act III, the wheels come off the bus as a American Indian lobbyist, played by Rick De Leon, finds his way into the White House with a poison dart blow gun, intent on exacting vengeance on Smith. 

Written during the latter portion of George W. Bush’s second term, November casts a cynical eye on politics at every level. Quid pro quo is the law of the land, and Mamet’s play highlights the exaggerated effects of this in a play that is both witty and pointed in its emasculation of American politics.

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November plays at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard through November 2. For ticket information and show times, see the VC On Stage Calendar.

 

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