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Hardly Strictly Politics

Back in 5th century B.C. Greece, the comedic playwright Aristophanes called on the carpet the major social and political figures of the day in plays that abounded with clever wordplay and blatant sexual innuendo. Though his plays regularly lampooned prominent politicians, Aristophanes won many awards, and attendance was not just tolerated, it was encouraged by the Athenian government. Ancient Greek comedy was, in a sense, the original political cartoon- meant to provide release through laughter for a populace that had plenty to complain about.

Now, like the Athenians, we too are in a precarious position, in which our politicians may lead us as a nation to glory or to utter ruin. Just as Aristophanes so successfully captured the unmitigated idiocy and hypocrisy of many of the figures and events of his time, so too, does David Mamet in November — making our future appear rather bleak, but hysterically so.

November chronicles several hours toward the end of President Charles Smith’s (Andrew Polk) first term in office. Upon reaching re-election time with decidedly low approval ratings, the brash and rather clueless Smith has decided that instead of stepping quietly out of office, he will rally and run for a second term. And, of course, what is it that parts the seas of disapproval to leave a clear path to re-election? Money. Smith needs some. A lot.

With the help of his assistant, Archer Brown (Anthony Fusco), Smith successfully finds the money by upping his fee for the annual presidential turkey pardoning. How would the National Association of Turkey and Turkey By-products Manufacturers like it if Americans gave thanks every year over pork?). Yet, seeing the deal through proves more challenging than expected as various national issues begin to hit a little too close to home.

Between threats of “extraordinary rendition,” assassination attempts, and exploding turkeys, the five characters in the play weave a wonderfully complicated and clever fabric of dialogue that swiftly moves the plot along toward its hilarious climax. This is one thing that Mamet writes beautifully, and which the actors have executed with remarkable agility.

One-sided phone calls impinge upon stilted conversations that flow easily in their broken discontinuity- interruptions, unfinished thoughts, half uttered words, explosions of profanity, sneezing fits, more ringing phones. Like one of Bach’s more complicated fugues, the voices and sounds interweave in an unconscious and natural way, leaving the audience in a state of delighted confusion. It is really this that makes the play worth seeing.

The costuming and set are fairly simple — certainly not operatic but very well-done — while the plot ultimately does not have a whole lot of underlying substance. Yet the exchanges, the absurdity of the dialogue and the tripping pace, taken up expertly by the small cast, provide more than enough in the way of entertainment.

In terms of the politics of the play — and how can we not address that in a play called November? — Mamet seems to be ridiculing not any one particular president or political agenda, but the whole of politics in general. Pardons of both turkeys and criminals, gay marriage, campaign finance, bird flu, Native American casinos, terrorism, the Chinese; all are fair game in November, yet again, Mamet’s only comment seems to be concerning the ineptitude of the Oval Office, not a vote for or against any particular stance.

This is where we get back to Aristophanes and comedy. Aristophanes took a position on the issues in his plays; in November, it seems Mamet does not. Yet, both playwrights do attain one common result, the same result often garnered by comedies — a peek behind the curtains. The genius of comedy is that it veils the truth with the ridiculous and laughable, and at the same time shows the ridiculous and laughable sides the truth. It pretends to cover over, but really reveals.

November gives viewers a peek at the fact that the president, and all of his compatriots in political arms, is nothing more than a guy in a suit. Aristophanes would have been proud.

American Conservatory Theater
Now through November 22, 2009
Tickets: $10-$82