NOVEMBER * Written by David Mamet * Directed by Joe Mantello * Starring Nathan Lane, Dylan Baker, and Laurie Metcalf * Ethel Barrymore Theater, New York City (open-ended run).
The flip side of hetero gay-bashing is the fascinating phenomenon of straight guys signing up as cheerleaders for the rainbow tribe, like Native American writer Sherman Alexie who once announced, “Homophobia makes me wish I sucked dick.” Add to that category David “Fuck You” Mamet, the author of such hyper-macho scripts as
American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. Once a prolific playwright, nowadays he spends most of his time writing and directing movies. He only churns out a new play once every few years, but the last three have all revolved around gay characters.
Boston Marriage, his only all-female play, was a mock-formal Oscar Wilde-like comedy of manners about a lesbian love triangle.
Romance was a crazy courtroom drama with more men in suits spilling out of the closet than the final scene of
In and Out. In November, which just opened on Broadway, Nathan Lane gives his best performance in years as a foul-mouthed corrupt president whom everybody hates, and Laurie Metcalf plays his Peggy Noonan-like lesbian speechwriter who extracts from him a promise to marry her and her girlfriend on national TV.
Mind you, none of these plays delivers a brief on behalf of gay rights or puts forth any shining role models for gay youth. Mamet is a free-wheeling genius at spinning words for maximum explosiveness on contact with an audience. His plays are less about plotlines or stories than about language – not just how ideas and meanings get expressed or hidden in words, but also the visceral impact of specific words and sentences on the body. The clichés about Mamet, that he has a “good ear” for realistic dialogue and that he uses the F-word as liberally as an Indian chef uses curry, are true to some extent. But really Mamet’s language is as stylized as Shakespeare’s and as
rhythm- based as rap, its mixture of poetry and profanity driven by a burning rage that’s both comic and exhilarating.
In November, Lane plays Charles H. P. (“Chuck”) Smith, a joke of an American president, in the last throes of a re-election campaign going so poorly that he’s told “Your numbers are lower than Gandhi’s cholesterol.” Desperate to manipulate the election in his favor or at the very least to leave office with enough funds for a Presidential library (fat chance), Smith bounces one ridiculous scheme after another off his cynical, no-nonsense legal counsel Archie (the wickedly dry Dylan Baker). And he relies heavily on his speechwriter Bernstein (Metcalf), who’s just returned from adopting a baby girl in China with her partner and who, even though she’s sneezing and snuffling from a bad cold, can still spew quasi-eloquent presidential bullshit by the yard. The set-up is classic Mamet, a cross between
Speed-the-Plow (his previous Broadway premiere) and Wag the Dog (his Oscar-nominated screenplay), with Metcalf following the footsteps of Madonna and Anne Heche as the seemingly weak woman whose integrity gives her some power over ruthless men.
The play addresses hot political issues, including gay marriage, by squeezing laughs out of Beltway cynicism. The president keeps threatening anyone who crosses him with being treated as an enemy combatant and shipped on “the piggy plane” to some place in Bulgaria that sounds like
"Pradacheckbook." My favorite line is when Archie informs the president, “We can’t build a fence to keep out illegal immigrants, because we need the illegal immigrants to build the fence.” Mamet is less interested in satire with a specific political agenda than in classic farce with its inherent critique of the social order. So Bernstein’s lesbianism simply serves as grist for the pile-up of plausible absurdities we’re seduced into accepting, which builds to a climactic collision in the Oval Office involving her Chinese good-luck amulet, a vengeful Native American chief, and a lobbyist from the turkey industry.
November dazzles with inspired anarchy without ever quite challenging the status quo. What lifts it above the level of a very good
Saturday Night Live sketch is Nathan Lane’s performance, which mixes hostility and humor with unpredictable hints of bewilderment and human sweetness. Under the excellent direction of his long-time teammate Joe Mantello, Lane makes every fuckin’ Mamet “fuck” sound as fuckin’ fresh and natural as fuckin’ Julie Andrews in the fuckin’
Sound of Music.
The Advocate, March 25, 2008