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Theatre in the Park's November

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David Mamet's best plays, like Oleanna and American Buffalo, are so rigorously constructed, his dialogue so muscular, that the bad politics he fills them with leave audiences with challenging and exciting moral knots to untie. But when his art fails him, his plays are just the bad politics. In November, which premiered in early 2008—the hospice time of the Dubya presidency—a corrupt incumbent president tries desperately, and venally, to get re-elected, spewing Lenny Bruce-style stand-up routines in which Mamet deliberately slurs the Chinese, American Indians, homosexuals and many others, and invites the audience to laugh along with him.

This smug, juvenile potshot is probably intended as satire, but satire has a moral point to make, and November doesn't (unless it's that artists aren't required to make good art during a bad presidency). By the time an aggrieved, war-dancing Micmac chases the president, his advisor and his bridal gown-wearing lesbian speechwriter (don't ask) around the Oval Office with a poison-dipped blow dart gun, it has long been clear that November is not satire but farce.

And it's a lame one, meandering and lurching, taking up plotlines and then discarding them, setting up huge joke contraptions and then neglecting to operate them, with no apparent goal except to win popularity and make money (just like the Bush administration). The moral failure of the play is more in how shoddily it's constructed than in its meretricious offenses against minorities. November seems to be pandering to the lowest common denominator (also just like Bush), except that Mamet, who was too lazy to do his job well here, obviously holds his audience in great contempt (ditto).

The current Theatre in the Park production adds to that contempt by replacing Mamet's copious profanity with a lot of "fricks" and "craps" (except for "Bumfuck"; apparently toponyms are exempt). Apparently, the producers thought that comic hate speech would appeal to its audience as long as it followed network TV decorum and fudged out a couple of common cuss words.

They were right. The audience laughed uproariously on Saturday night before giving November a standing ovation. (The approval suggests that we've completely lost faith in the Oval Office, even with a new president in it.) Ira David Wood III, who also directed, stars as the president, gleefully delivering Mamet's provocations like an honor student cutting up while the teacher is out of the classroom. Wood's performance—like that of many presidents, of course—is all personality and no character. He had the audience completely seduced all night. He should run for governor of North Carolina; he's almost sure to win. With November, Wood shows a firm grasp of the fundamental similarity between entertainment and politics: You can never go broke underestimating your audience.

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