- OnStage Associate Connecticut Critic
In 2007, George W. Bush was concluding his two-term presidency, a tenure fraught with criticism, mockery and incompetence. Violent and ill-fated wars waged overseas and the angry divide caused by racism, homophobia and partisan politics seemed wider than ever. It was also when a hitherto unknown African-American politician from Chicago announced he would be running for the presidency on a campaign of hope and change. You could see why, in 2007, David Mamet wanted to write a political satire. A break from the steamy, violent dramas the “Glengarry Glen Ross” playwright is most known for, his resulting comedy called “November” skewers unscrupulous White House dealings by holding them up to a funhouse mirror. It’s a sitcom’s view of politics with zingy one-liners and wacky plot developments that the New York Times called “glib and jaunty” back when the show opened on Broadway in early 2008 with Nathan Lane as the racist, egocentric, crooked, exceedingly unpopular POTUS.
Problem is, a lot has changed in the last ten years. What once felt like outrageous satire is now a frightening, all-too-real part of our day-to-day existence. What once was “glib and jaunty” now feels somewhere between depressing and a rehashing of every late-night monologue joke in the last 16 months. That is to say, I’m not sure “November” has aged well (and I’m not so sure “November” was all too fresh to begin with).
That is not to fault the Eastbound Theater company of Milford, CT whose production of “November” wrings as many laughs out of the script as possible. Skillfully directed by Michael R. Mele, the show finds its brisk and hyperbolic tone right away with President Smith (John Bachelder) trading quick barbs with his lawyer Archer (Mark Frattoli). Nearing the end of his disastrous first term, President Smith is desperate to win reelection despite polling number “lower than Gandhi’s cholesterol.” He’s also on a quest to raise enough money for a Presidential library in order to placate his (unseen) wife. Over the next two acts, President Smith concocts a number of harebrained, illicit schemes to meet those goals including extorting a representative of the turkey industry (John Warakomski), colluding with a Native American tribal leader (Luke Lynch) and illegally marrying his henpecked lesbian speechwriter (Lauren Linn). The plot twists and turns with the visible mechanics of a foul-mouthed “I Love Lucy” episode, ending with a loony crescendo of physical comedy and misunderstandings involving a Chinese amulet, pardoned Thanksgiving birds and a tribal blowgun.
It is not surprising given the playwright that “November” works best when Mamet’s frank, percussive and smart dialogue takes center stage. While he relies too much on screwy hijinks and set-up/punchline jokes, there are some very funny passages (“We can’t build the fence to keep out the illegal immigrants. You need the illegal immigrants to build the fence!”) and a number of highly amusing set-pieces.
Bachelder and Frattoli have fantastic on stage chemistry (bios revealed unsurprisingly that they’re frequent theatrical collaborators) and they tackle the tricky, overlapping dialogue like pros. With his shifty eyes always surveying the oval office (Kevin Pelkey did the fine-tuned unit set) and his voice bellowing like a wah-wah trumpet, Bachelder tackles the key role of President Smith with aplomb. Frattoli is his match, dryly volleying punchlines and providing some hilarious reactions. The other stand-out in this production is Lauren Linn who brings wonderful energy and a keen ear for timing (both of the comedic and sneezing variety). I wish she had more of a meaty role to sink her teeth into. In fact, I wish all of these roles had a bit more substance.
Despite fleetingly playing with some serious themes, “November” is, at its heart, a silly and trifling comedy that is pure escapist entertainment. I can imagine many theatergoers being won over by its breezy and non-partisan parody of American politics. For this critic, though, it became increasingly hard to laugh at a pathetic, hotheaded, ignorant, greedy man blindly leading the country with immoral impulses. This is one case where truth is crazier, scarier and much less funny than fiction. So, the story of “November” isn’t what I currently want to escape to, it’s what I need to escape from.
This was my first time coming to Eastbound Theatre, which has been running for over 20 years. The intimate, cabaret-style auditorium was lovely and it’s clear their productions are well-made and feature talented artists. I also applaud any company that chooses to stray from the path of safe, well-known shows and produce a politically incorrect, lesser-known work like “November,” even if the timing is unfortunate. I look forward to returning in February for “Sylvia,” a spry comedy about love and acceptance and family. Hopefully by then, the world outside the theater will be just a little friendlier.
“November” plays through October 15th at the Milford Center For The Arts. For more information, visit http://milfordarts.org.