ST. PETERSBURG — David Mamet makes like Neil Simon in November, and the gags are pretty good. The scene is the Oval Office, and President Charles Smith and his aide, Archer Brown, are hashing out a speech.
"We can't build the fence to keep out the illegal immigrants," Brown tells the president.
"You need the illegal immigrants to build the fence."
Ba-ba-boom! Another punch line lands in this political comedy by the tough guy of American theater, now at American Stage. It stars Michael Edwards as the incumbent a few days before the election desperately trying to find a gimmick to reverse his poll numbers that are "lower than Gandhi's cholesterol."
Though Smith's situation resembles that of George W. Bush at the end, his style is more like a flesh-pressing wheeler dealer such as Lyndon Johnson, shaking down a hapless representative of the turkey industry for a campaign contribution. Just before Thanksgiving, he threatens to pardon "every f-----g turkey in this country" if the cash isn't on his desk by breakfast.
With his bushy eyebrows and reading glasses perched on the tip of his nose, wearing a dark suit with red tie and flag pin, Edwards looks every inch the statesman, but he works the phone with the feverish intensity of one of the real estate sharks in Glengarry Glen Ross. And, yes, this president being a Mamet creation, he is wildly, poetically profane, with so many F-bombs that after a while they become little more than punctuation, like "forsooth" in Shakespeare.
Sarah Gavitt plays Clarice Bernstein, the president's lesbian speechwriter, in the manner of Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. She has a cold, caught in China, where she and her partner just picked up their new baby, and Bernstein's sniffling and sneezing is a comic element throughout the play.
November starts out as farce, but it artfully evolves into something else, and that is Mamet's eloquent pitch for gay marriage as the next, necessary advance for American democracy. The banter between Gavitt's Bernstein and the excellent Wayne LeGette, playing the aide Brown, is deliciously subtle. At one point, a gesture of LeGette's seems to suggest the gay man willing to throw his lesbian sister-in-arms under the bus for the sake of political expedience.
Though it's fun to see a Mamet play as concerned with jokes as manly truth telling, it must also be said that the humor in November doesn't always click. The plot goes over the top with the entrance of Chief Dwight Grackle, played by Giles Davies in full American Indian regalia.
Director Greg Leaming seems to have followed the Hippocratic oath by assembling a strong cast and doing no harm. Everybody appears to be having a good time. The production has witty touches, like the bar concealed in a globe and the retro phones and typewriter, and the deep blue carpet looks richly presidential.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.