Between the debates, the 24-hour news cycle, the ads, and the general dinner table conversation, if you feel like you’re being hit over the head with endless political commentary, you’re in good company. But that hasn’t stopped L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum from mounting a spirited, if indulgent, production of David Mamet’s 2008 political farce, November, which may prove that politics has just gotten less funny since 2008, when we were happy to make fun of George W. Bush-isms.
In the Taper production, which premiered Sunday and runs through Nov. 4, Ed Begley Jr. plays the hapless conservative incumbent President Charles (”Chuckie”) Smith, a role that Nathan Lane originated on Broadway four years ago. His numbers are ”lower than Ghandi’s cholesterol,” he has no patience for political correctness in private company, and he won’t stop talking. I mean, he really won’t stop talking. While there are other characters onstage (notably an underused Felicity Huffman as his speechwriter), the play is essentially 90 minutes of fairly unpresidential soliloquy from Smith, full of one-liners that elicited only subdued chuckles.
Begley does a solid job of playing the president, but Mamet’s script leaves the minor characters out in the cold — quite literally in the case of Huffman, whose Claire Bernstein has been dragged back into work at the Oval Office while suffering a horrible case of the flu. She plays a lesbian speechwriter to whom Smith is quite endearingly loyal, despite his rants about all liberal causes, from gay marriage to illegal immigrants. Huffman plays Bernstein as someone who’s just doing her job — but she can barely get a word in edgewise and spends too much of the show half-asleep or sniffling on the Oval Office couch. As the Chief of Staff who must keep the easily distracted president on task, Rod McLachlan injects just enough ironic self-awareness that we know he knows his boss is dead in the water politically.
The play’s focus comes together when Smith comes up with a hare-brained scheme to raise money for his presidential library — a ploy to placate his predictably frustrated (off-stage) wife. He decides to pursue the turkey lobby and up the price for a presidential turkey pardon, which leads to the comic relief in the form of a representative of the National Association of Turkey and Turkey By-Products Manufacturers (Todd Weeks) and a Native American tribesman (Gregory Cruz).
In a bid at political relevance that played well with the L.A. audience but felt out of place in the show, Bernstein tries to persuade the president to marry her and her partner on TV and even appears in the Oval Office in a frou-frou wedding gown. But the moment feels more pandering than laugh-out-loud funny.
The professional and talented cast move easily through the show, which is staged on a near-perfect Oval Office set (designed by Takeshi Kata). But November lacks the gravitas necessary for a great political satire. We have enough political buffoons spewing out nonsense all day on CNN and Fox News. Do we really need to pay to see another one on stage? B?