BY CARY GINELL
David Mamet’s play November closes this weekend, just prior to the end of the mid-term election season, and it is just about as laughable (see our review in the October 19 edition of VC On Stage). Last week, we spoke with director Tom Eubanks and actor Ron Rezac, who plays beleaguered President Charles Smith.
VCOS: After seeing the play, I couldn’t help but notice the difference in your casting of Ron Rezac as the president when someone totally unlike Ron, Nathan Lane, played it on Broadway. Does this reflect a difference between your approach to the play and the playwright’s?
TOM: When I first heard that Nathan Lane had played the original role of Charles Smith, I was appalled, because he did it as a farce and it’s not a farce. It’s a satire. Satire, to me, is just a step up from farce. I hate farces. I have a hard time sitting through them. We talked repeatedly during rehearsals about not falling into farce. There are a couple of times where the script is written in a farcical way and it’s hard not to fall into it, especially in the second act.
VCOS: What’s the difference between farce and satire?
TOM: The situation may be farcical, but when the characters themselves play it straight, you’re playing satire. When it becomes about the situation, it’s farce. So when you play the situation, actors tend to overdo it a little bit, that’s when it falls easily into farce. It’s mainly because actors forget what they were told in rehearsal (laughs).
VCOS: So what did you tell them?
TOM: Ron Rezac is really good with keeping in line with the intent of the author, which is satire. When I approach directing a play, I really study what is the intent of the author. I added the Mousetrap game and the coloring with crayons that are not in the script, which was my way of taking the intent of the author and embellishing it, keeping in mind that behind closed doors, even in the White House, there are things that happen that these people who we see as magnanimous people are merely just men in suits. That’s how it’s described in the play. It doesn’t say this is the President of the United States or Chief of Staff, it says “Men in Suits.” And I believe that Mamet’s intent was to bring them all down to a level where they are really at. Behind closed doors, they do things that everybody does.
VCOS: Is that why the Chief of Staff doesn’t refer to him as Mr. President, calling him “Chucky” instead?
VCOS: So there is no respect for the office behind closed doors?
TOM: Absolutely. I think that was his intent. The first time I saw the script, and it said “Charles Smith, Archer Brown, two men in suits,” I said to myself, “OK, I know where he’s going with this.”
VCOS: So do you think the original director miscast Nathan Lane in the part?
TOM: I didn’t see that production, so I’m not going to say that. I’ve seen Nathan Lane in a lot of things, but I just don’t see him in this. He just immediately takes it into farce. Alan Alda in M*A*S*H is satire. Alda would be perfect casting for the President. He can play a really straight character who is funnier than hell. And that’s what Ron is good at, too. The only person I ever had in mind to play the President was Ron. He has that look. He looks like he could be a senator or president.
VCOS: Ron, I saw President Smith as being a very unlikable person, whereas with someone like Nathan Lane, he would play it differently, as kind of a lovable buffoon. How did you approach the role?
RON: Tom wanted to make sure that we concentrated on a couple of different things. He has to, at times, appear presidential; he has to, at times, appear childish; and he has to, at times, appear that he has to be steered because he’s not sure where to go. We tried to put all three of those things together. It’s interesting, to me, that you see the character as not being likable. There are parts in the script where he is definitely torn about how to throw Bernstein [his speechwriter] under the bus. The way Mamet ends the play – the president willing to take his loss and go home – kind of redeems him a little bit, but he’s obviously a man who is not suited to leading the country. And if I might, the different between farce and satire to me is that you have real people in real situations. They may be saying outlandish things, but the situations could totally exist.
VCOS: Did you ever wonder how this guy ever got elected in the first place?
RON: Does that involve research? (laughs) My procedure when I take over a part is to read the script and glean whatever I can from what’s on the printed page. I’m not a big one for research. It may have occurred to me but I see the way the man is portrayed in the script, and I take it from there. The director’s responsibility is to push me in certain directions, which Tom does, and that’s how we went about it.
VCOS: What was the most difficult thing you had to reconcile, between the script and what you had to work with?
TOM: The parts of the script that were weak, which come toward the end, I thought that we would try not to let it fall into complete farce. Sometimes we succeed better than other times, because it’s such a fine line when you start dealing with poison darts and amulets in the White House. How can you not fall into farce?
VCOS: What things did you add to the show?
TOM: Primarily things in the second act, like props that were put on the desk. Those weren’t my idea, but the cast started understanding where we were going with it, so we had a little toy guillotine, the little perpetual motion clacking balls, the game of Mousetrap on the coffee table, David munching popcorn; those kind of things gave the sense that these were just some guys playing around. When you play, as a kid, you play with an agenda. You’re not doing something altruistically, it’s all so you can enjoy yourself. These men in suits are just there for themselves, not for anybody else. We’d love to believe that they are, but they’re not.
VCOS: All the characters in the script seemed to be out for themselves.
TOM: Absolutely. The only character I wondered about was Archer, the chief of staff. It’s never really fleshed out as to what he wants, and I think anyone who plays that role has to think about how to develop that character. David Colville figured that out on his own. One person said that Archer was very Karl Rovian. Well, Karl Rove always wanted to be behind the scenes, the power behind the power.
VCOS: I didn’t get that sense with David’s portrayal. It seemed to me that he was the President’s protector, trying to prevent Smith from doing or saying something stupid. Rove was a puppeteer.
TOM: In the script, it does appear that he steers the President. It’s subtle, but it’s there. On the first day of rehearsal, when Smith is sitting at the desk, I put David directly behind him for a long period of time for just that reason. He’s always working behind him like a puppeteer. He’s not the power behind the President, but he does carry a big coffee cup that says “I Am the Boss” on it. (laughs). That was David’s idea. He understood his role.
VCOS: Did all the profanity in the play bother you?
TOM: Yes, because I am a preacher’s kid and a devout Christian, and I typically don’t do plays with a lot of profanity. It does bother me. I chose it because I was on my way up to Utah, sitting in the back seat of the car during a summer vacation, and I’m reading this play and laughing out loud in the back seat the entire time. I read a lot of funny, funny plays, but I typically don’t laugh out loud. But with this play, I couldn’t help it. I was laughing my head off. Then when I gave it to Ron during A Streetcar Named Desire, he’s sitting in the front row, reading it and laughing out loud. So I just knew I had to do it. It’s just one of those plays and I just had to kind of bite the bullet on the language.
VCOS: How about you, Ron. Were you uncomfortable with it?
RON: No. Number one: I’m a big David Mamet fan. I love the way he writes. My impression of interpreting Mamet is to just do everything he writes. Every punctuation mark, every ellipses point. To me, none of the F-words are unintentional. I don’t think he’s being gratuitous. I really believe David Mamet has a purpose for every swear word he puts in a script. One of the other reviewers mentioned that they didn’t like the profanity because they didn’t think it was funny or necessary and they didn’t think that it defined character. Well, I disagree with the last one.
VCOS: At the beginning of the show, you play Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech from the Watergate era. Did you pick that?
TOM: David Colville actually chose it, but I decided to put it at the beginning of the play to establish a point of where the play was going.
VCOS: So are we seeing more of a Nixonian character in President Smith?
RON: In that respect, probably. I don’t know what Mamet’s intent was with the profanity.
TOM: To me, I think it was one-third Nixon, one-third George W. Bush, and one-third Bill Clinton. We can’t leave the Democrats out, I’m sorry! (laughs).
November concludes its run at the Elite Theatre Company this weekend. For dates and showtimes, visit the VC On Stage Calendar.