An older gentleman strolls out of a restaurant on the upper eastside and sees a bum slumped against the building’s wall. The bum asks for something to eat, and the man rummages in his doggy bag and hands him a baked potato. Appalled, the bum spits and returns the potato. “You got anything else?” he asks, to which our patrician gent scoffs and declares with a haughty, supercilious air, “’Beggars can’t be choosers’ – Shakespeare”. “Yeah?” says the bum. “Fuck you, fuck your mother and fuck your dog – Mamet.”
It is 1983. The up-and-coming American playwright, David Mamet, has hit the proverbial wall. He is months deep in the script for his new play, a drama about a Chicago real-estate agency, with no end in sight. In an act of desperation, he appends a plea for guidance to the script and sends it to Harold Pinter. “What do I do?” asks Mamet. “Help me, what does it need?” Pinter famously replies, “Production”, and forwards it to his friend at the Royal National Theater. Glengarry Glen Ross appears in London the following September, and is awarded the Pulitzer shortly thereafter. Mamet becomes one of America’s most acclaimed and respected living playwrights.
It is 2007. The aging American playwright, David Mamet, is the co-producer and writer of CBS’ The Unit, a show that chronicles the exploits of an all-male, top-secret military unit and the picayune intrigues of their women. The lure of film has apparently supplanted his desire to make theater. For fifteen years he has splashed about in the waters of Hollywood, proffering to the public a gloomy procession of routinely underwhelming movies. He writes books on cinema. He scribbles political cartoons and displays them on the Huffington Post. As a playwright, he barely exists.
It is 2008, and David Mamet has authored a new play.
It is 2008, and it is a new low for David Mamet.
Titled November, Mamet’s new play follows the last week in the presidency of Charles Smith, whose single term in office is remarkable only for the magnitude of its failings. Its self-consciously “zany” plot revolves (loosely) around Smith’s scheme to exploit the annual Thanksgiving Day pardon – wherein the president excuses a Turkey from slaughter – as an opportunity to launch his reelection campaign.
Smith is played by Nathan Lane; this fact alone should set off a veritable army of red flags in the heads of long-time Mamet fans. How one could ever hope to reconcile the Mamet of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross – ordained heir to the tradition of Beckett and Pinter – with Nathan Lane, rubber-faced and beloved, a man with the body of Jackie Gleason and the voice of Ethel Mermen – much less find cause to utter the two names in the same breath – is a hopeless question, and moreover the wrong question.
For the question, rather, is this: How does one reconcile the Mamet of The Unit with Nathan Lane? The answer, obviously, is November. But who is this new Mamet of The Unit, and what is his response to his old haunt, American theater?
Well, for one thing, today’s David Mamet appears an astute observer of newspaper headlines. Throughout the play, he parades before us the familiar host of Issues that delimits Red and Blue in today’s America: Voter Fraud, Gay Marriage, Terrorism, Avian Flu, and so forth. However, in his treatment of these issues, Mamet consistently neuters them of their tragedy and their horror, rendering them wacky conundrums that merely drive the plot. When, despite the author’s best ability, the seriousness of these issues creeps back into the play and causes it to veer toward an interesting moral dilemma for the characters, Mamet commandeers the wheel and flees, tail between his legs, back to the soft comfort that the Broadway Comedy affords him.
In his search for humorous material, Mamet has mined from the coagulum of our popular culture a grubby array of all-too-familiar jokes and conceits: the usual suspects, life-blood of pundits, TV satirists and bloggers, so obvious that no one person would dare assume credit for their devising because any of us could have, and all of us did, devise them. Smith: “Why can’t we build a fence to keep out illegal immigrants?” Chief of Staff: “Because we need the illegal immigrants to build the fence!” And so on.
Now add to this a number of horrible one-liners. These are sad, painful one-liners, and Lane delivers them with an antic bravado that makes their tinny resonance all the more grating to the ear.
Finally, today’s Mamet is apparently unwilling to fashion a single character that is not also a caricature. Satire – even political satire – does not excuse a playwright from his duty to create human beings, however fictional. Characters need not be three-dimensional, deeply psychological beings, and not every one of them need be original. But Mamet’s characters are all threadbare, wire-and-tape assemblages of popular stereotypes – and nothing more. We have a corrupt idiot-in-chief, keen to torture and generous with racial slurs, eager and willing to abuse the Constitution for his own interests. We have a Jewish liberal lesbian speechwriter, who has just adopted a baby from China. We have a smarmy, bespectacled corporate stooge. We are even graced with the atrocity of Dwight Grackle, an “Injun” casino-owner with feathers in his hair and poison darts in his primitive Injun blowpipe. These characters are nothing more than the sum of their vague and hollow descriptors.
In its favor, the play does afford the audience a pittance of catharsis. “Why don’t they want me in office?” the hapless president asks his top aid. “Because they hate you!” he shouts back. “Because they hate you!” The crowd roared at moments like this because, frankly, we do: at least, the last time I checked, 83% of America does not approve of George W. Bush and doubtless no small portion of those people bear genuine hate for the man. And even though our proxy is Nathan Lane, it is nice to see someone hack through the self-delusional, drool-on-lip demeanor of a commander-in-chief and convey the message of disapproval loud and clear.
But the obvious inspiration of Lane’s character, coupled with the issues Mamet returns to again and again (Gay Marriage, Avian Flu etc.), begs the simple question: Why now? Why not four years ago, before the 2004 election, when this material had more clout? Today, George W. Bush is the very easiest of targets. The furor over the ongoing presidential election, along with the nation-wide clarion-call for Change, has rendered him a prematurely lame-duck president. Of course we all hate him. Today our country is not seized by the fierce division of four years ago. Today is not four years ago.
Today, there is simply no reason for this play to exist.
As I type these words, my heart emits a frightful yelp, a strain beyond the familiar clamor of its cigarette-induced arrhythmia. This is because I want only the very best for David Mamet. From a very early age, my father instilled in me an abiding love for the man’s work.
Dear David Mamet, this review is a hatchet job, and I’m the first to admit it. But it’s one that hurts me as much as it hurts you.