Actors Guild of Lexington artistic director Eric Seale cleverly scheduled David Mamet's presidential-campaign play November on the weekends bookending Tuesday's presidential election.
But director Bo List and actor Joe Gatton, who plays fictional President Charles Smith, say audiences worn out by attack ads and 24-hour cable news need not fear a political polemic in Mamet's tale of a hapless president seeking re-election.
Mamet's previous foray into the Oval Office, co-writing the screenplay for the 1997 film Wag the Dog, with its chief executive mired in a sex scandal, was a blatant riff on Bill Clinton, the president at the time.
"I started out directing this thinking that this was a totally non-identifiable president — that the audience would not be able to say, 'Oh that's like Bush, that's like Obama, that's like Carter, that's like whatever.' This was written in 2008, so Obama had not yet been anticipated.
"But the more we go, I think it takes the worst of (George W.) Bush and the worst of Clinton. You have the deal maker and 'morals be damned, we're going to get what everybody wants, or what I want at least,'" List says. "And with Bush, there's the sense of him being the antithesis of the elite — the not particularly educated, the not particularly articulate.
"Whatever each party hates about the other, they will look at this and think this president reflects that."
As the play opens, Smith is in the final days of his campaign and wondering what he can take with him when the voters inevitably send him packing. When he starts talking about his presidential library, his adviser laughs. It's been that kind of administration. But faced with long odds, he decides to throw some Hail Mary passes to try to turn the election around.
Of course, as the cast and crew have rehearsed, a real presidential campaign has been playing out. Gatton says the play has not sparked any deep thoughts about the issues in this election as much as it has made him contemplate what a show politics is, whether it's a race for president or for governor.
"I've got nothing against Steve Beshear, but you've got to laugh that he and David Williams were such bitter enemies, and now Beshear has nominated him for a judgeship," Gatton says of the incumbent governor and the state Senate president, who ran against each other in the 2011 gubernatorial election. Last week, Beshear, who won in a landslide, nominated Williams for a vacant circuit judge post.
"It's almost like, if you could get in there when nobody was looking, they'd be like pro wrestlers after the match is over, all buddy-buddy sitting backstage drinking beers. You look behind it and it's all B.S., it's a put-on."
In a way, Gatton and List say, November is a throwback to a less partisan era that many people say they wish would return, when politicians of different parties worked together.
"He says what separates us from the lower life forms is the ability to trade this for that," Gatton says of his character. "Quid pro quo: What do you want? OK, this is what I want. There's a line in the play that this is like third grade: 'Give me your candy bar, I'll give you my orange.' Some people would say that's what's wrong with government today, that you don't have the trading of the candy bar for the orange. Everybody's just like: No, I'm just going to make sure that you don't get what you want. Of course, I'm screwing myself over, but I don't see that. All I want to do is stop you."
The deep thoughts are easily trumped by the laughs in November .
"I'm a political junkie," List says. "I like to watch MSNBC and CNN and all the talk shows. But this is like a vacation for me, a politically themed vacation."
Although it was programmed around the election, he says, impressions of the play should not change with Tuesday's results, except that some patrons will be in better moods than others. And even then, Mamet offers audiences an electoral worst-case scenario.
List gestures toward Gatton and says his character, "No matter who you vote for, it's not as bad as this guy."