There's a lot of very funny stuff in David Mamet's "November," a political farce set in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, there's also a lot of stuff that is not nearly so funny as David Mamet thinks it is.
The Lyric Stage Company's New England premiere of the play, hot on the heels of its Broadway run with Nathan Lane, makes the most of the funny bits by using two of Boston's most gifted comic actors in the central roles: Richard Snee, as the hilariously stupid, hilariously corrupt US president, and Will McGarrahan, as his long-suffering chief aide. Their impeccably snappy timing, along with the contrast between the blithe cluelessness of Snee's President Charles Smith and the low-key cynicism of McGarrahan's Archer Brown, keeps the laughs rolling steadily through all their exchanges.
Mamet, as is his wont, takes the cynicism and corruption of his characters as a given - and, as he did in the satirical film "Wag the Dog," makes his comedy out of the very fact that the characters are unquestioningly, reflexively corrupt. "Ask not what your country can do for you"? Forget it. All Mamet's President Smith wants to ask is: "Who can we shake down?"
Well, because the play is set in November - just before an election that Smith is poised to lose, and not long before Thanksgiving - the immediate target for the shakedown is the National Association of Turkey By-Products Manufacturers. The president is about to do the annual ritual pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey, see, only he gets the brilliant idea that he should charge money for doing it. A lot of money.
How much money? As one of Mamet's typically snappy lines has it, "I want a number so high even dogs can't hear it."
So far, so funny - especially with Neil A. Casey playing the turkey-products rep, with a winsome freshness that eventually, inevitably, and very amusingly gives way to apoplectic rage at the president's demands. Each of these three guys is ridiculous in his own way, and the collision of their assorted varieties of ridiculousness is delightful to behold.
For me, though, the laughter stops whenever Mamet turns to the character who's not a white guy, the president's speechwriter, Clarice Bernstein. Clarice is a lesbian, and she and her partner have just adopted a daughter from China. That's so funny! And now they want to get married. Wow! Get a load of that - does it get any funnier?
Adrianne Krstansky plays Clarice with an appealing if shlumpy aplomb, investing her with the decency that the script does allow her. But the part itself is fundamentally misconceived. In the company of three men who are laughable because of their character traits - greed, cynicism, whatever - we get a woman who's laughable because - well, let's see. Because she's a woman, because she "bought" a baby, and because she's a lesbian. Sorry, not funny.
And I do mean not funny. Not just "offensive to women, adoptive parents, and lesbians," but also "unsuccessful as a humorous device." The guys on stage here are larger-than-life cartoons (a point that's nicely underscored by Jenna McFarland Lord's Looney Tunes Oval Office set), but Clarice is written more or less, you should excuse the expression, straight. By asking us to laugh at her very existence, Mamet deflates the giddy satire. Her completely unfarcical presence pulls the over-the-top nastiness back to a merely irritating level and throws the pace and tone of the whole story out of whack. And that's before Clarice tries to save her boss from a furious "Indian chief" who's out for blood.
At least the chief, played with stomping verve by Dennis Trainor Jr., gets a few good lines. So maybe that's the lesson: If you're going to treat a whole sector of the human population as a joke, at least make it a funny one.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.