BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
David Mamet made a rare foray into comedy with November, his play that opens this weekend at American Stage. It's also about politics, another relatively infrequent Mamet theme, unless you count the sexual politics of plays like Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Oleanna, or his screenplay on a presidential flimflam, Wag the Dog.
Set in the Oval Office, November is about an unpopular incumbent president up for re-election. Inspired by the absurdity of presidential pardons for Thanksgiving turkeys, according to a synopsis, the play "involves civil marriage, gambling casinos, lesbians, American Indians, presidential libraries, questionable pardons and campaign contributions."
The production is directed by Greg Leaming and stars Michael Edwards as President Charles Smith. Director and actor got together to talk about their experience with it and other Mamet works over lunch last week.
"The Mamet plays I really love are the early ones. The Shawl. The Water Engine. American Buffalo,'' said Leaming, director of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training in Sarasota, who has taught a lot of Mamet but is directing his first play by him with November.
"The exciting thing about this one is that it's in a completely different vein. He uses the rhythms, and he uses the kind of aggressive character structure that he does in his other plays, but he's putting it toward a different end. He's putting it to use for farce and almost burlesque. He knows his shtick. Setup, punch line, setup, punch line — he knows how to pull the rug out from under you, verbally.''
At Mad Cow Theatre in Orlando, Edwards played Shelley "The Machine'' Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross, a savage attack on the real estate business and probably Mamet's best-known work.
"This play is a great deal lighter,'' said Edwards, last seen at American Stage as Morrie in Tuesdays with Morrie. "There is a lot of back and forth banter like Abbott and Costello. But there is also a lot of underlying desperation, there is anger, there is that shark-in-the-water kind of thing.''
Like many Mamet plays, November is laced with profanity, especially the f-word. "There are 146 f---s, I think,'' Leaming said.
"That's fewer than Glengarry,'' Edwards said. "We counted and it has 280-odd.''
"It happens to be the language of these people. It's Mametspeak,'' Leaming said.
"It becomes a nonissue about a third of the way into the script,'' Edwards said. "I'm dying to see how they (the American Stage audience) react. Because if they can get past the f---s to the points being made, then the f---s mean nothing.''
November, starring Nathan Lane as the president, premiered on Broadway in 2008, when George W. Bush was still in office. "I think when it was written, it was meant primarily as a satire, but now that Bush is out of power and we've got a little distance, it starts to feel like a Preston Sturges film,'' Leaming said.
Mamet's crisp, minimalistic dialogue is often likened to that of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, but Leaming thinks it is very different.
"The vocabulary may be spare, but the dialogue, the thought process, the language is actually incredibly complex and very poetic,'' Leaming said. "It's not like Beckett in the sense that Beckett is down to one or two words half the time. It's not repetitive in the mouth of an actor. It's constantly shifting thought, thought that is growing and moving.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.