By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
There’s a point late in David Mamet’s script for November, a comedy written more than a decade ago, when the “i-word” is mentioned. It’s spoken by the character of President Charles Smith as he muses that he always thought he would be remembered for something.
The line is intended to elicit laughs. After all, what president would ever think he would be remembered by historians for his impeachment?
The problem is – prescient or not – Mamet’s line falls somewhat flat in an environment where politics is as ugly and crazy as he could ever have imagined it on paper and what he had hoped back in 2008 was strictly for laughs.
With their ongoing production of November, Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts producing artistic directors, Theatre13, have been caught in a minor maelstrom not ever envisioned when they researched available shows to mount a year ago. November is not part of its regular season offering. Those season subscribers who wanted to see the show had to pay extra for it.
But what they received in return was a comedy many don’t find particularly funny and the extra they were guaranteed was an extra amount of f-bombs than they had anticipated.
In fact, Theatre13 co-artistic director Gary Rucker, himself starring in the production, felt it necessary prior to showtime to read off a litany of disclaimers about the show including Mamet’s pervasive use of the “f-word” and the unfortunate coincidence about the subject of the “i-word” during these tenuous political times.
Directed by Sean Patterson, this production mirrors a previously mounted Theater13 production of November in 2010. Both Bob Edes, Jr. and Leon Contavesprie starred as President Smith and his chief of staff Archer Brown, respectively, and they reprise those roles along with Rucker as a representative of the National Association of Turkey and Turkey Products Manufacturers.
To his credit, Patterson directs his stars well, milking Mamet’s frighteningly vivid and mostly hilarious (if it just weren’t so close to reality) two-act play that shows an incumbent president seeking reelection with no campaign war chest and polling numbers “lower than Ghandi’s cholesterol.”
Edes is masterful as he prances about the stage, reacting as news of his reelection prospects – all bad – keep worsening and determines that only by hook and crook does he even stand a chance of staying in power.
Throughout the action, Contavesprie provides the necessary grounding for the often out-of-control president. He is measured, considerate and cool, even when the Oval Office is careening out of control and the presidency is going off the rails.
Jennifer Delatte also stars as presidential speechwriter and avowed lesbian Clarice Bernstein and Michael John Smith portrays Native American Chief Dwight Grackle, who is looking for a way to build a giant casino on federal land.
Delatte’s performance is unusual because she is more widely known as a singing actress, having proven herself in several worldwide venues as well as on local stages for both Rivertown and the Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS). She does not disappoint in this performance, providing several moments that move the comedy along and make the president ever more frenetic in his desperate effort to be reelected or at least go home with a substantial campaign fund with which to build his presidential library.
In addition, Smith, a former Marine Corps Band conductor who has recently been working in film following his discharge, adds the final ingredients to the comedy menu as written with the usual Mamet style of characters reacting closely and sometimes stepping on the other actors’ lines intentionally.
Rucker adds his usual comic tour de force to the cast and he is quite funny in the second act when the live turkeys he has brought to the White House to be pardoned face calamity.
Again, there is no way Mamet could have envisioned that the words he chose so carefully more than a decade ago for Broadway veteran Nathan Lane to utter could ever have found any rooting in reality.
But politics, it is said, makes strange bedfellows and – apparently – even stranger plays.
With November, local audiences have been unnerved and disquieted when they should have been laughing and chortling. It just hits a bit too close to the mark.
Maybe it’s time for something less controversial. How about Rivertown considering Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins for next year?
Directed by Sean Patterson, November continues at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts from now through November 10, 2019. For tickets click here or call 504-461-9475.