An Empty November
Vortex’s solid cast props up madcap plotline
The point of staging November in November is, presumably, to bring added topical relevance to the play. It concerns fictional incumbent U.S. President Charles Smith, who’s fighting to hold onto his office in the final days leading up to an election. The premise may sound familiar as our real presidential election approaches, but this piece written by David Mamet is so absurd and pointless that it fails to connect to anything bearing resemblance to reality.
Any play that hangs its first act’s climax on the line, “I’m going to pardon every turkey in this country!” as November does, cannot possibly have much to it. The fluffy bulk centers upon the president’s various, mostly turkey-related schemes to come up with more money for his flailing, broke campaign. When a representative from the National Association of Turkey arrives to coordinate the traditional Thanksgiving pardoning, the desperate president tries to squeeze him for all he’s worth. Hijinks ensue. Clarice Bernstein, President Smith’s speechwriter and the play’s noble hero (Georgette Reeves), goes along grudgingly in a bid to get the president to marry her to her lesbian partner.
Director John Hardman’s cast is uniformly excellent, and the company delivers the play with all the humor and swagger that can possibly be expected. Matt Heath as the president and John Wylie as his trusty adviser work well off each other as a goofy comedic duo. Reeves gets her timing and delivery just right as the play’s obligatory straight man (no pun intended). Harrison Sim hits all the best silly notes in his interpretation of the Turkey Guy. But their stellar performances cannot counteract the sheer inanity of this play.
There are a few good moments when a glimmer of something more interesting shines through the pile of absurdity that Mamet has heaped upon us. “Everyone wants something,” says President Smith to Bernstein in an uncharacteristically perceptive moment. “The power. To trade this for that is what separates us from the lower life-forms.” The play is, it seems, a satire about power in this country: how it’s obtained and what people do once they have it. Or it would be a satire, if its plot or characters had any dimension.
“I’m going to pardon every turkey in this country.”
President Charles Smith (Matt Heath)
As it stands, each character exists as just the culmination of gags and one-liners played for laughs. Take the president: There’s a running joke in which he’s continually railroaded by someone—his wife, his committee chair, the leader of Iran—on the other end of a phone call. The calls themselves are funny, but it’s hard to believe that a man could ascend to the position of U.S. president when he allows himself to be constantly interrupted. One the other hand, President Smith makes a habit of shipping people who get in his way off to a secret prison in Bulgaria—something his self-declared “wartime powers” allow him to do. The potent idea that the president of our nation would have and make such cavalier use of that kind of power is terrifying. But in November, it gets so lost in all the rest of the nonsensical farce that it barely even registers.
The whole thing ends on a bizarre and baffling note. It almost feels like the playwright was up against a deadline and couldn’t figure out how to properly resolve his thin story line. “Eh,” I imagine Mamet thinking as he threw in inexplicable new characters and unconnected plot twists in the final pages. “This will have to do.” Still, Mamet is an ace writer, even on his off days. The play, while ridiculous, is fast and fun, and the Vortex’s production is top-notch. It’s a showcase of some of the solid comedic talent our city has to offer. Despite the absurdity, it would take a person with a pretty poor sense of humor not to at least crack a smile. So go—laugh. Roll your eyes. Just don’t expect any substance.
Runs through Nov. 4
Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday at 2 p.m.
The Vortex Theatre
2004 1/2 Central SE