Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region  


Todd Duckworth as The President. Photo David Pasho.

United States President Charles Smith, the centrepiece of David Mamet’s nasty and funny November, is stupid, venal, and a racist. Trailing badly in the last week before Election Day, he’d do anything to win a second term in office. If he loses the election, his one desire is a presidential libary although its doubtful he’s read a book in decades. Yet reprehensible as he is, like a train wreck you can hardly take your eyes off him.

That’s in part because playwright Mamet has created an oddly compelling character modeled to some extent on George W. Bush (the play premiered on Broadway in 2008, the year that Barrack Obama unseated Bush).

It’s also because Todd Duckworth, who plays Smith in this quick-footed production, has discovered enough tics and absurdities in this tempestuous, crude and wholly self-serving dud of a leader — he doesn’t know the difference between Iran and Iraq and equates the evils of slavery with the evils of disco music — to keep him buoyant, balanced between credible and mere caricature.

Smith, presumably through dumb luck, has a sharp-minded chief of staff named Archer Brown (Steve Martin, who makes the most of a thinly sketched character). Archer’s seen it all and, ruthless, does what he has to do to keep Smith mostly between the lines.

That includes trying to steer him through a hilarious debacle involving the annual pardon of a turkey which the United States president actually does every Thanksgiving.

Smith, desperate for campaign funds to launch a last ditch effort to recapture the presidency, bullies a flustered, right-wing representative from the turkey industry played by Tom Charlebois into shelling out millions in exchange for the publicity that the presidential turkey pardon brings.

That plan runs into a roadblock when the turkey man learns that Smith has agreed to perform the marriage of his lesbian speechwriter Bernstein (Chantale Plante) and her partner on national television. Bernstein is the play’s moral anchor if anyone is, her belief in social justice as out of sync with this presidency as is her sexual orientation. Still she’s not above coercion to get what she wants Everybody wants something, says Smith, in one of those world-weary Mamet moments.

Smith also ticks off Chief Dwight Grackle (Bruce Sinclair) who is claiming Nantucket for his tribe. Smith, of course, hasn’t a clue how to deal with this or any other crisis.

Under director John P. Kelly, all this — and more, believe it or not — unrolls at a quick, efficient pace. The production, seen in preview, does lag during Smith’s too-long phone conversation which opens the second act, but soon jumps back on track.

The production also loses some of its bite by being mounted after the recent United States election rather than before.

Mamet’s script has rightly been accused of being slight, not representative of the playwright at his word-skewering best. There are glib, lazy lines — “Where’s the secret service?” asks Smith. “Sensitivity training,” shoots back Archer —which wouldn’t be out of place in the contrived world of sitcoms.

Still, couched as it is in David Magladry’s attractive Oval Office set, this is one funny and very pointed show.

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