David Mamet's Oval Office farce November centers on an imploding U.S. president, Charles Smith (Ed Begley Jr.), running for a second term, while his own re-election committee has cut off funds and his lesbian speechwriter, Bernstein (Felicity Huffman), is already drafting his concession speech. “Why? Why? We won the first time,” he pleads to his chief of staff (Rod McLachlan). Retorts his adviser: “Because you've fucked up everything you've touched.”
When the play premiered on Broadway in 2008 (starring Nathan Lane), Smith might have been a stand-in for George W. Bush, whose approval ratings then were in the cellar, and what might have transpired if not for term limits: selling pardons to criminals in order to raise campaign funds, and hiking from $50,000 to $200 million his fee from a national turkey association for pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey on national TV.
In 2012, the play contains only the faintest echoes of topical parody; rather, it works as a more general satire of a political system for sale. The play's high points are in some of the details. Comedically combining plot elements of Glengarry Glen Ross and Oleanna, the desperate president of the United States (who wants mainly to walk away with enough funds for a legacy library) finds himself bartering and betraying: Bernstein will give him a poll-boosting speech only after he marries her to her female partner on national TV, a broadcast already promised (for $200 million — cash) to the national poultry association.
Scott Zigler's staging (on Takeshi Kata's scrumptious Oval Office set) has a weird psychological credence, thanks largely to Begley's silky, very funny performance, flush with emotion yet bereft of histrionics. His Smith is a walking moral vacuum, struggling to find something noble within or beyond him.
Mamet's dialogue sparkles with P.C.-savaging wit — undone by absurdity that shatters plausibility: Turkeys explode in the anteroom, and a livid, violent Native American (the fine Gregory Cruz) bursts in while the Secret Service is on a coffee break. Huffman is a terrific foil for Begley, while McLachlan's chief of staff and Todd Weeks' poultry rep also sail through seamlessly. —Steven Leigh Morris
NOVEMBER | Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Nov. 4 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org