Hampton Theatre Company's Tonic for a Wild Election

Andrew Botsford, left, and Matthew Conlon in “November” Tom Kochie

In 2008, when David Mamet debuted “November,” his play about the madness of American politics, he could have hardly foreseen the season of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But he sure tried. This satire’s central character, Charles Smith, is a sitting president up for re-election, and if that situation is not currently relevant, then nearly everything else in “November” is.

President Smith is a man beset by minority special interest groups, gay rights coalitions, and questions about campaign contributions and the funding of a presidential library, not to mention being torture-happy and on the political take. His popularity score hovers right around Clinton’s and Trump’s recent approval ratings. “What is it that people don’t like about me?” Smith asks his adviser Archer Brown. “That you’re still here,” is the reply.  

A revival of “November” is running at the Hampton Theatre Company in Quogue through Nov. 6, and part of the pleasure of watching this production — if not the very point of it — is hearing the zingers that remind us of our current political mess. There is this, for example: “We can’t build a fence to keep out the illegal immigrants,” states Archer Brown. “Why not?” asks the president. “Because we need the illegal immigrants to build the fence.”

Of course, staging a David Mamet play can be tricky business. With his syncopated language and arch staccato rhythms, Mr. Mamet may be the most singular of American playwrights; revivals of his work have had mixed success. “November,” however, is one of his least idiosyncratic plays, relying more on broad humor and less on stylized dialogue. In fact, there are times when it seems more like an episode of HBO’s series “Veep” than a Mamet play. This makes it low-hanging fruit for restagings, and the deft players of the Hampton Theatre Company dig out nearly all of the comic nuggets in its text. 

President Smith is not only harried and uninformed but spineless, and seems to rely on his adviser for the most basic information (he’s not even certain if his country is at war with Iraq or Iran). Though the election is still ahead, his wife has already made arrangements to remove a couch she loves from the White House, and though he has promised her there will be a presidential library in his name, he has raised only $400,000 so far toward that end. When a representative from the turkey farm lobby enters the Oval Office offering a payola scheme for the “pardoning” of two turkeys, the plot is off and running. 

There are moments in the first half of “November” when the comedy doesn’t quite hit its mark, but this seems more the fault of the text than this faithful production. Mr. Mamet has always been primarily a dramatist with comedic flourishes rather than a writer of flat-out farce, and occasionally there is a lack of snap to the humor. 

But things begin to warm up in the second half, and soon all the jokes are landing, the audience reaching a point of giddy exhilaration as the play coasts from one hilarious absurdity to the next. This has a good deal to do with the appearance of the character Clarice Bernstein, President Smith’s lesbian speechwriter, who tries to pressure her boss into officiating at a civil ceremony for her and her partner (this was before gay marriage) on national television. 

Bernstein is played by Rebecca Edana. As happened in her performance in last year’s “Lost in Yonkers,” the quality of the production seems to rise whenever she’s onstage. Bernstein is a farcical character meant to further taunt the beleaguered president, but Ms. Edana treats her longing to be married with such feeling that it momentarily lifts the play into something beyond mere comedy.  

Andrew Botsford takes on the role of President Smith with sniveling gusto, succeeding in making him likable despite his many abhorrent qualities.  It doesn’t hurt that he has a great straight man in Matthew Conlon, who plays Archer Brown with wicked cynicism. In the play’s last leg, when Archer is trying to explain to his boss the technical nuances of the word “legal,” the performances achieve a jazzy timing that seems to capture the best of Mr. Mamet’s rhythmic demands.  

While President Smith seems at least  partly based on George W. Bush, you don’t need a political affiliation to appreciate “November.” In fact, fans or detractors of either of our current candidates will find plenty of red meat in Smith. When pushing executive legality to its limits (and often beyond), the satire seems directed specifically at Mrs. Clinton, while Smith’s bigotry echoes some of Mr. Trump’s saltier rhetoric. Mr. Mamet is too good a writer to indulge in mere political ideology; with “November” he has nothing less in his sights than the entire American political scene.  

As we wind down from another crazy and exhausting election cycle, it’s hard to think of a better tonic than a night with President Charles Smith and this pleasing Hampton Theatre Company production.   

Rebecca Edana, Andrew Botsford, and Matthew O’Connor in “November” at the Hampton Theatre Company in Quogue. Tom Kochie