Every four years, the US presidential election captures the attention of the world. And why shouldn’t it? From a practical perspective, it is of immense interest to every person on the planet: who will be placed in charge of the largest nuclear arsenal and greatest concentration of purchasing power in the world? Even then, a straightforward intellectual contest between two capable candidates would likely be quite uninteresting whatever the stakes. Fortunately, the American presidential race has a long and proud history of shenanigans, crackpot candidates, scandal, and cover-up. In short, it’s a show. In November, David Mamet turns his notoriously swear-filled pen to satirize this contest from a very narrow angle: the action of the play occurs entirely in the Oval Office itself.
In the final week leading up to election day, President Charles Smith (Todd Duckworth) is coming to terms with the distinct possibility that not only will he fail to be re-elected for a second term, but that there isn’t even enough money left in his campaign fund to pay for a presidential library in his name. Once-loyal supporters have deserted his cause en masse. Even his closest advisor, Archer (Steve Martin) is convinced it’s time to throw in the towel, and his inexplicably loyal lesbian speechwriter Bernstein (Chantale Plante) has taken the liberty of writing his concession speech—while in China adopting a baby girl. It would seem that Chuck Smith is a lame duck whose goose is cooked, but for a glimmer of hope from an unexpected quarter: the president of the National Association of Turkey Manufacturers (Tom Charlebois). But everyone wants something in return for their help, including Chief Dwight Grackle (Bruce Sinclair), and it’s up to the avaricious, opportunistic, uninformed, screamingly racist and sexist President to decide who to make a deal with, and how.
Besides being famous for writing dialogue that captures the strange poetry of American speech peppered with vulgarities, David Mamet has something of a reputation for being politically outspoken. Although he has not gone quite so far as fellow performing arts veterans such as Clint Eastwood or Victoria Jackson—dressing-down empty chairs or informing the American public that they are going straight to Hell—he leans rather to the political right. He has also gone on the record as saying that political correctness has no place on the stage, and from the moment President Smith opens his mouth it makes a mad dash for the stage door never to be seen again. Theatregoers sensitive to either foul language or the representation of extreme political ideas may be offended. It is almost as if Mamet had a checklist of easily-offended groups and made sure to hit every one throughout the play.
It’s hard not to laugh, though. Here is the President of the United States behaving like Frank from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and it’s glorious. He says something abhorrent, and it’s at first shocking, then hilarious. If it were less over-the-top, it might be possible to take it seriously, but it’s quite obviously an absurd exaggeration. In case there were any remaining doubt as to whether or not November is satire, Chief Dwight Grackle appears as a ridiculous amalgam of Native American stereotypes that would be right at home in a very old Donald Duck cartoon.
In the hands of director John P. Kelly, November plays as the farce that it is—a farce with no scene changes and only one door. The cast is pretty much perfectly chosen. Todd Duckworth even almost looks like the particular Republican president that November seems to lampoon. He delivers Mamet’s syncopated dialogue naturally, and grasps the pathetic nature of his character perfectly. To this performance, Martin provides the contrast of a cool, slick, capable foil. If there were a Colonel Sanders for turkey farming, Charlebois would be the model, in image and in speech. Plante shines as the earnest innocent who represents the antithesis of President Smith (and thus possibly the American people as they see themselves). Sinclair plays a little too directly to the audience, but by the time his character hits the stage the action is almost absurd enough for us to accept his cobbled-together…
No, okay. I’ll admit it. That’s when I finally found myself offended. You got me, Mamet.
So why should you see this play about the American presidency? It’s practically your civic duty. Because what’s more Canadian than making fun of Americans?
Seventhirty Productions presents November, written by David Mamet and directed by John P. Kelly, from November 23 to December 8 at the Gladstone Theatre. Details and tickets at http://thegladstone.ca/.