May 06, 2011

The president as part turkey, part lame duck

May 6, 2011

By David Mamet
State Theatre Company of South Australia
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
May 5. Tickets $ 29 – $59. Bookings : BASS 131 246
Until May 22.

Charles P. Smith is President of the United States. He is within days of losing re-election and he doesn’t know why. “”It’s because you’ve screwed the country into a cocked hat,” his adviser, Archie Brown, helpfully explains. “But at least I’ve done something !” is the bewildered reply. Although first performed in 2007 in the last year of the George W. Bush presidency, David Mamet’s satire November is a White House sitcom about no Commander in Chief in particular. The point is made that the President is just a man in a suit (unless your name is Hillary of course) and the characters are, rather disgenuously described as that.

In this case, it seems the wrong Mr Smith has come to Washington. He is a dud President who desperately wants a legacy – a library would be nice, but he’s obviously never read a book. Anyway, for his departure he needs money, so just when he’s looking for a donor to shake down, along comes the Turkey Representative for the annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon ceremony. Suddenly the President’s fee has gone up to $200 million. But Smith’s lesbian speechwriter also has ideas. She will write him into posterity if he will preside over her same- sex marriage, live on national television.

With Victoria Lamb’s replica of the Oval Office worthy of something from The West Wing, director Adam Cook sets this mixed bag of a play into brisk farce. He is greatly helped by Garry McDonald as Smith, who skillfully straddles the odd mix of candour, invective, special pleading and fecklessness that Mamet has written. McDonald’s mock torment, writhing self pity and perfect comic timing give traction to Mamet’s best lines and he is ably helped by Peter Michell’s unflappable Archie and Michael Habib’s amusingly discombobulated turkey rep. Barbara Lowing fares well also as Clarice Bernstein, the speechwriter
wrangling with a president who by Act 3 has gone from Nixonian outbursts to become a genial duffer who might be played by Steve Martin – or Homer Simpson.

Cook has produced an entertaining night in the theatre but we are left wondering about its purpose and timing – both now and when Mamet staged it. In its odd mix of deep cynicism and hopeful idealism November is trying to have it all ways. Perhaps the President is just a man in a suit but after Iraq, the GFC, the collapse of the domestic economy and the divisions of the Tea Party, David Mamet’s fuzzy appeal to the spirit of American can-do (the do-it-yourselfers he calls the tinkerers and “shade mechanics”) seems like a naïve joke in itself.

Murray Bramwell

“The president as part turkey, part lame duck” The Australian May 9, 2011, p.19

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