Mad Horse opens new home with classic comedy

Playing at politics
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  October 18, 2012


Charles P. Smith (Brent Askari) is in trouble. He has, according to his own closest advisor (Mark Rubin), "fucked up everything he's touched." The chair of his party has cut off funding, the election is but two days away, and his wife is going to go batshit when she learns that there's barely five grand in his Presidential Library fund. But might there still be a chance for Charlie to see the democratic light, to forswear his own petty and profane self-interest, even as turkeys-to-be-pardoned wait in the anteroom to smell his hand? This play might sound like a Frank Capra film, if not for the dazzling ubiquity of the word "fuck." So, no: it's David Mamet's madcap November, a breezily glib election-year comedy, and under the direction of Christine Louise Marshall, it's the first production staged by Mad Horse Theatre in its new home in South Portland.

The new theater, following relocating from the former Lucid Stage, is in the front room of Mad Horse's rehearsal space, the Hutchins School, and it is cozy and intimate. For November, it's arranged as Charlie's Oval Office, richly appointed in dark wood, with a fireplace and orchids at the north end of the theater, his desk to the south, and audience arrayed in rows to the east and west, facing the stage and each other. It's a promising space for Mad Horse's future, even given a support pole in front of each audience section: these at first seem regrettable, but are so ably circumvented by Marshall's blocking that they recede by the time Askari has spat his first few expletives.

Mamet's script includes many more of them, and it manages to be all-inclusive in its insults; Charlie needles Iran one minute, and the next addresses a memorable quip to the Israelis: "Listen, you people got along without a country for two thousand years," he sneers into the phone. "You're gonna be fine." As Charlie barks at and demeans everyone around him with creative panache, the excellent Askari is in prime form: I don't know another actor who could so pace Mamet's indefatigable derision and spleen. His Charlie torments with particular gusto the poor Representative of the National Association on Turkey and Turkey By-Product Manufacturers, who in Burke Brimmer's capable hands is pale, earnest, and brilliantly uncomfortable; he smiles and swallows as if interactions with Charlie continuously bring fresh bile into his mouth.

The show adopts the tropes of the classic screwball film comedies, and nowhere is that golden age movie ethos more consummate than in Lisa Van Oosterum's marvelous Clarice Bernstein, Charlie's long-suffering speechwriter and, with her partner Daisey, new mother of an adopted child from China. Van Oosterum has the verve, intelligence, and stick-to-it-ive-ness of the quintessential Girl Friday. Her character's clarity and integrity are never diminished by the over-the-top hijinks and caricatures into which Mamet's script devolves (including an appearance by James Herrera's gleefully ham-handed Navajo chief), which it does at the expense of the some of its more genuine feeling, social relevance, and currents of real-life politics and the electorate.

Ultimately, Charlie does, in true classic comedy style, come around, and it's perhaps appropriate that it comes about as a result of looking out for number one, in a sort of twisted take on Tocqueville's "self-interest rightly understood." It's a plewasure and relief when Askari's Charlie finally brings his act and his ego down to earth, and takes honest looks both at the other guy (or gal) and at himself.

NOVEMBER | by David Mamet | Directed by Christine Louise Marshall | Produced by Mad Horse Theatre, in South Portland | through October 28 |

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