by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"November" by David Mamet
Staring Nathan Lane
Directed by Joe Mantello
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street
Reviewed February 2, 2008 by Margaret Croyden

If you love the great Nathan Lane then you will love this show because its another chance to see a superb comedian work. Whatever Lane does, even his appearances in unremarkable plays, he always stands out. He has had a fabulous career judging from his credits that fill almost two pages in the program. Who can forget Nathan Lane in "The Producers" or in the movie "The Birdcage," or his many comic antics in Terrence McNally's plays. An accomplished performer with perfect timing, perfect character traits, perfect movement, (like his hero, Jackie Gleason) even a lift of his eyebrows, or his smirk, or rage, can intrigue the audience no matter how insignificant the play. Plainly he is the whole show. And I am always happy to see him.

But sometimes he does make a mistake by choosing material unworthy of his talents. "November" by the prestigious David Mamet is unfortunately a weak vehicle for a great comic. Not that is has no laugh lines; it has. But that's not the point. It's a meager, repetitive story that for all its intended cleverness, is finally tiring: David Mamet has tried too hard to be funny.

Mamet is known for his daring, brooding, angry plays about nasty characters in a rotten world. And true to form
the characters in this work are also nasty and rotten. Only they are funny--funny fools, buffoons, scheming politicians, who would do anything and everything to get elected. Still the play lacks punch. Laughs, yes, but no real energy except for Nathan Lane who works hard to deliver the one-liners.

Charles Smith (Nathan Lane) is a president running for reelection. The setting is a room that replicates the Oval office (almost) and obviously reminds one of its current occupant. The President is a trickster, a liar, an opportunist full of idiotic convictions (or no convictions). He is the typical insider who will do anything to get elected--like all politicians.

Right at the beginning Nathan Lane as the President is furious; he might lose the election. In his rage, he delivers a barrage of four letter words expressed as a noun, a verb, an adjective, and a participle--language used repeatedly. If this is offered as a shock it doesn't work. We have heard these words before and in fact in most of Mamet's play. By now this is dull. And tiresome. We need more original language than this. Bedsides it reduces the play to a tirade of cliches so that the satire is gone, and the play becomes ordinary.

Listening to the President rant and following his orders is Archer Brown (Dylan Baker), the second in command, a shrewd yes man. Also in the act is Smith's leading speech writer, (Laurie Metcalf), an awkward, funky, homely woman with a cold (and what seemed like a running nose), who, though ill, and needs to go home, obediently follows every wish of the great man with one proviso. The president himself will need to conduct her marriage to her partner--a lesbian. Unless he agrees she will not write his great speech. He agrees. (Laurie Metcalf is hilarious, though the role itself seems as though it were stolen from "Saturday Night Live").

A further source of fun is the arrival of a representative of the Turkey Association (i. e., the special interests). The President will support the turkey industry if the turkey industry will support him. A done deal.

Much of the play is admittedly clever, but Mamet is too clever by half. He tries for consistent one-liners, and the play is packed with them--one after another. Although Lane is fine as a standup comic, one hopes he can do more. No matter--the audience found it funny. And although Mamet has written brilliant plays with stunning dialogue in the past, "November" is a disappointment.

Nevertheless the great Nathan Lane is still worth seeing. Only I wish he would chose better material. I'm sure he doesn't want to be compared to Jay Leno and his one-liners. Not that there is anything wrong with that....

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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