Hail to the turkey
By Carolyn Hayes
We’ve long been fascinated with what happens behind closed doors in Washington, as evidenced by film and television’s countless returns to the political well. Now, Planet Ant Theatre gets in on the action, kicking off its season with a dirty look at the filthy underbelly of the presidency in David Mamet’s rollicking “November.” Under the direction of Kelly Komlen, this tongue-in-cheek comedy delivers the joys of satire without the burn of cynicism, striking a superb sour-candy balance to lampoon the highest office in the land.
It’s business as usual for President Charles Smith (Seth Amadei), who – days away from losing reelection, and possibly hours away from armed conflict with Iran – is on the red phone in the Oval Office…bickering with his wife about furnishing his eventual presidential library. While clearly possessed of the jovial character and comforting assuredness that wins a politician votes, Amadei’s every impulsive utterance proves that his administration’s brain trust is not located in-house, so to speak.
The man’s shortcomings in basic policy, tact and understanding of the limits of his power fall to adviser Archer (Andy Huff) to bridge; luckily, this is one smooth handler and confidante.
Huff and Amadei’s dynamic twosome forms an impressively effective operation, although their aims are not as momentous as one might hope. Between sniping at campaign managers and rolling over special interests (with help from otherwise-cool Huff’s psychotic intimidation tactics), their furious wheeling and dealing makes no distinction between matters of national importance and points of petty insolence.
The playwright’s signature rat-a-tat writing style is well met in this flurried activity, punctuated by the constantly ringing phones of the stately surroundings. Designer Rudy Schuebach’s set includes an antechamber that viewers pass through on their way into the theater space, craftily complementing the production’s behind-the-scenes candor. The overall design is functionally ornamental, enhanced by primary-colored textiles and gilt flourishes, all augustly lit by Kevin Barron. Kirstin Bianchi’s costume design is similarly meticulous, with buttoned-up business and overly formal dress just waiting for the pageantry of the next photo op. Beyond the distinct sounds of the room’s three jangling phones, Komlen and assistant director Michael Hovitch’s sound design alternates between patriotic standards and jaded, shredded covers, mirroring the blurred serious and silly business exploding onstage.
The show’s high-stakes approach to inconsequential matters has an allegorical bent, clearly intended to mock the ineptitude of this branch of government. Yet in doing so, the play also dispenses a kernel of understanding of just how hard it must be to achieve anything from the highest office in the land; each new issue and demographic group touches off a host of other interconnected needs, leading down the rabbit hole in a progressively futile chase away from resolution. In the hands of Komlen and company, these inner workings are as revelatory and perplexing as they are sharply funny.
General mayhem is achieved thanks to fluid staging and solid contributions by the entire cast. As the president’s put-upon speechwriter, Vanessa Sawson expressively progresses the internal battle between her work ethic and her ethics, building up to the moment when she’s pushed far enough to draw a daring line. Dave Davies is a teetering jumble of affectations as the face of big poultry, bringing a metaphorical rubber chicken to a gunfight. The less said about Dan Jaroslaw’s wildcard performance, the better, but only because it would serve to detract from the impact of his juddering intensity.
But the most rigorous and rewarding work is that of Huff and Amadei, the former a deft puppet master and silent charades partner, the latter a complex recipe for bluster and bloviation without the insight to even understand that he’s faking it.
Many viewers will be aware that profanity holds a place of honor in Mamet’s oeuvre, and this piece is no exception; the playwright also paints his main character in a conspicuously small-minded light that forces one to surmise that cultural sensitivity was left off of someone’s presidential platform. More damningly, after painting itself into a corner, the script finds itself a convenient trap door, rushing through an abrupt climax and sitcom-neat conclusion.
However, this cannot discount the enjoyment of the flawless journey that this “November” brings. A hotbed of serious ridicule, this engaging and energetic production operates on an extraordinarily high level, with a forcefully funny concept and slick performances to match.