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Zany, witty 'November' on stage in New Milford

By Erik Ofgang, News-Times


The president of the United States is in the Oval Office in the midst of an intense phone conversation, but he's not talking to politicians or diplomats -- he's trying desperately to get off the phone with his wife.

After several of his attempts to hang up fail, he lies and tells her the country is about to go to war with Iran. Even that doesn't work! Ultimately the conversation sets in motion an international crisis that would be troubling if it wasn't so entertaining.

That's just one of the many zany, witty and bitingly satirical moments in "November," a 2007 comedy written by David Mamet. It's now being staged by TheatreWorks in New Milford, just in time for election season. The production runs through the weekend of Oct. 5 and 6, and fans of Mamet's work and the straight-faced absurdity of political satires such as "Dr. Strangelove" won't want to miss it.

TheatreWorks regularly offers high quality professional shows and "November" more than lives up to the high standard set by past productions at this theater. Directed by Richard Pettibone, the show is flawlessly executed and brings Mamet's words to life with skill and nuance.

Pettibone also provides the excellent movie-set quality set design. His direction and staging strikes exactly the right tone, which allows the cast to make even the play's most ridiculous scenes believable.

Mamet has achieved cult status in the world of theater and beyond thanks to plays such as "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," films like "The Cherry Orchard," "The Spanish Prisoner" and "Spartan," and the TV series "The Unit." Those familiar with his work know he's fond of dropping f-bombs and "November" features a steady and often laugh-inducing bombardment of profanity.

"November" tells the story of bumbling President Charles Smith, (Tom Libonate). It's days before he's up for re-election and his approval rating is lower than "Gandhi's cholesterol." Smith's party (Mamet diplomatically never mentions which party he actually belongs to) has stopped running ads because it doesn't want to waste any more money on the campaign.

Smith decides to stage a last-ditch effort to win the election, mostly because if he doesn't get re-elected he'll be leaving office completely broke. As we follow his re-election efforts, Mamet incorporates a variety of themes -- some purely comical, others politically charged.

Explored in varying degrees of detail are the real-life practice of presidents pardoning turkeys prior to Thanksgiving, gay marriage, Indian casinos, the use of torture, and last but not least -- nuclear war.

Libonate's portrayal of Smith is full of well-timed one-liners; highlights include his telephone conversations with his wife and the leaders of other countries, which recall Peter Sellers' classic conversation with the Russian leader in the film "Dr. Strangelove."

Jonathon Jacobson's performance as Archer Brown, the president's chief adviser, could be used as a textbook definition of how to properly play it straight during a comedy. His serious deadpan demeanor never cracks in even the slightest way, no matter what's happening around him, or how crazy the scene.

Mike Ritts turns befuddlement into an art form as the confused and agitated representative of the turkey industry -- his facial expressions are comedic gold. The cast is rounded out by Robyn Matiland, as the president's morally conscious screenwriter, Clarice Bernstein, and Matt McQuail as a cartoonish Indian chief who makes a late appearance in the show.

While the play might lack some of the power which has made much of Mamet's work so classic, it is a well-written, smart and frequently funny piece presented here with infectious and joyful zest. Over the next two weekends if you and your friends are debating what to do, I strongly suggest casting your vote for "November."

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