Review: In 'November,' Actors Guild makes best of mediocre Mamet script

Contributing Culture WriterNovember 2, 2012 

In Actors' Guild of Lexington's presentation of the David Mamet play November, Clarice Bernstein (Kim Dixon), President Charles Smith (Joe Gatton) and advisor Archer Brown (Jeff Sherr) savor a victory. The play, directed by Bo List, runs through Nov. 11 at the South Elkhorn Theatre on Old Harrodsburg Road. Photo by Rich Copley | Staff.

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  • THEATER REVIEW

    'November'

    What: Actors Guild of Lexington's production of David Mamet's play.

    When: 8 p.m. Nov. 2, 3, 9, 10; 2 p.m. Nov. 4, 11.

    Where: Actors Guild of Lexington, South Elkhorn Theatre, 4383 Old Harrodsburg Rd.

    Tickets: $20 adults, $15 students and senior adults; call 1-866-811-4111 from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., Sun. Go to Actors-guild.org.

Actors Guild of Lexington aims to help people let off some election-season steam with its latest production, November by David Mamet.

The story is a modern farce about the presidency and the lengths to which a scruples-free, failed incumbent might go to throw a political hail-Mary.

In program notes, director Bo List writes that ugly acts of election desperation are hallmarks of American history. He cites a few examples, including that Thomas Jefferson allegedly called John Adams a hermaphrodite in 1800.

As with many politicians, including November's fictional President Charles Smith (Joe Gatton), the play's strength also is its weakness.

As a comedy, it succeeds on the surface with hilarious high-octane performances, but Mamet's material surprisingly fails to rise above the format to make more sophisticated connections.

A good comedy makes you laugh, and this one does. But a great comedy makes you also think or feel deeply; this one doesn't. At least not as much we expect of Mamet. To be fair, expectations are extraordinarily high.

Were it not for the profanity-laced language and occasional bouts of striking elegance sparked by the fictional president's speech writer (Kim Dixon), it would be hard to tell that November was indeed a Mamet play.

It feels like a long piece of sketch comedy. It's hard to believe this is the same playwright who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross.

There isn't much of a plot beyond "What is this sad idiot going to do in his last days in office? Let's find out!"

In Mamet's defense, finding out is really fun, thanks in large part to Gatton's supercharged exercise in egomaniacal buffoonery.

Charismatic but empty-headed, courageous in his cowardice, unapologetically vile in his unorthodox wheelings and dealings, Gatton's president is a blustery amalgamation of the worst traits of previous presidential failures.

Gatton drives the show's momentum with Smith's increasingly desperate antics, performed with the kind of intense physicality that earned occasional laughter from Thursday's opening-night audience. The supporting ensemble performs with equal gusto even if Mamet has given them more caricature than character with which to work.

Dixon is entertaining as Clarice Goldstein, Smith's lesbian speechwriter and liberal agenda-wielding foil. He dismisses her sexuality as an "abomination," but he depends on her to write his legacy. This tit-for-tat compromise is a crucial part of Smith's character, and some might say an ugly but important aspect of politics that has fallen by the wayside since Mamet wrote the play in 2007.

Director List makes hay with Mamet's shtick, embracing zingers and ridiculous scenarios. Loud, bright, gregarious, rambunctious, List's production and its ensemble seem take a page from Smith's playbook: Go big or go home.

Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.

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