The savage merriment of ‘November’

It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but the opening-night audience, myself included, fairly howled through David Mamet’s “November” at the American Conservatory Theater Wednesday night.

A curious, delightful dichotomy is at the heart of this wild play about a hapless American president scheming to finance his re-election campaign with money extorted from the turkey industry for the ceremonial pardoning of the bird for Thanksgiving.

On one hand, the show has the usual Mamet “language” and merciless enumeration of all kinds of human and political follies.

At the same time, there is an almost innocent whimsy in the fairytale (or cock-and-bull) story, and a curious lack of venom. Mostly it’s a Moliere satire, with Voltaire’s edge here and there. It’s savage, but not cruel.

Why didn’t “November” do really well in New York? The problem could have been that Nathan Lane was the president. It’s eminently possible that what the audience saw was … Lane.

In San Francisco, in Andrew Polk’s genial portrayal, President Charles (Chucky) Smith is a dim, flickering bulb — not too bright, but unexpectedly street-smart when his back is against the wall (a constant condition). Not particularly concerned with right and wrong, he is a real, possible (if not always believable) character.

Mamet’s creation is a jolly Richard III, with a Paris Hilton of a wife — always on the phone, never actually onstage. 

Polk’s President Smith is guided through the real world by Anthony Fusco as Archer Brown, the chief of staff, resident brain and evil genius.

With a voice blending Ted Koppel and Bullwinkle J. Moose, Fusco is brilliant in an evening-long duet with Polk.

Appealing offbeat performances come from company stars unrecognizable in their roles. The usually glamorous René Augesen is the jet-lagged, head-cold-afflicted presidential speech writer (just back from adopting a baby in China and determined to marry her girlfriend), while matinee idol Manoel Felciano is the wimpy, balding National Turkey Association representative.

Steven Anthony Jones’ frightful Indian Chief rounds off the small but glorious cast.

Director Ron Lagomarsino moves everything smoothly along, not overdoing what’s already overdone by design in the writing. Designer Erik Flatmo’s authentic Oval Office is a place where telephones are the old, corded variety. Cordless and wireless phones are prohibited; that point is stated in program notes.

In one of opening night’s best moments, during yet another obscenity-spewing presidential temper tantrum on the phone, Fusco spotted the cord becoming detached from the handset. Instead of fixing it or covering it up, he held the cord up to the president to show that he was talking to himself. If it  wasn’t improvisation, an award-winning performance made it look like one.

 

THEATER REVIEW

November

  • Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
  • When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; closes Nov. 22
  • Tickets: $10 to $80
  • Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org
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