Toward the end of David Mamet’s “November” at the Barrymore Theatre, the corrupt president’s idealistic speechwriter delivers what is meant to be an inspirational rhapsody about the wonders of America.
“We aren’t a `nation divided,”” she insists, raising her voice for her climb-every-mountain moment. “We’re a democracy! We hold different opinions! But we laugh at the same jokes!”
In fact, we don’t laugh at the same jokes. I have personal knowledge of this discrepancy because Broadway has been overtaken by one kind of comedy. And it’s making me cranky.
By one kind, I mean throwbacks to a style of hard-sell, punch-line humor with nothing on its fluff-ball mind beyond trying to be funny. And by funny, well, ask me later. I don’t know what’s so funny on Broadway right now.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the best new plays were hyphenates. We had serious-comedies or comedic-dramas-hard-to-categorize work, edgy with contradictory impulses and mixed emotions, social awareness and political incorrectness.
Now even Jackie Mason, a controversial but popular Broadway staple since 1986, went Off-Broadway last week to open his latest piece of ethnic-insult and topical comedy, “The Ultimate Jew,” in a small theater at New World Stages. He calls this his final one-man show. “I’m not retiring,” he says, “Just retiring from Broadway.”
Yes, this has been a remarkable season for dramas, for musical revivals and, with “Passing Strange” and “In the Heights,” even for innovative new American musicals.
For reasons I’m struggling to guess, however, Broadway is having a silly spasm of comedies without content or subtext. In December, we got “Is He Dead?” a lovingly produced trifle adapted from a lost Mark Twain farce from 1898. This was the sort of throwback that trades on the alleged hilarity of smelly Limburger cheese and the purported exuberance of yet another hairy man in a ruffled dress.
Fine. Then came “The 39 Steps,” an expertly performed spoof of Alfred Hitchcock’s equally foolish but dead-serious 1935 spy thriller. The three performers are physical virtuosos and the staging, ingenious. But what’s it about? Sweet nothing.
OK. At least we knew we could look forward to “November,” Mamet’s new election-year satire starring Nathan Lane as the lowlife incumbent and Laurie Metcalf as his lesbian speechwriter. After all, Mamet won a Pulitzer Prize for the scathing “Glengarry Glen Ross” and is responsible for “Wag the Dog,” perhaps the most prescient piece of politically subversive comedy to ever make it to the screen.
But instead of wit and fury, “November” is about gags and grimaces - Mamet for people who don’t like Mamet. Take away the gleeful dirty talk and we have the sort of eager-to-please sitcom humor that even Neil Simon hadn’t been able to sell to Broadway in years.
And just wait. Still to come is “Boeing, Boeing.” This is the original stage version of the 1965 Tony Curtis-Jerry Lewis movie about an American reporter who juggles the schedules and sex lives of three unwitting “air hostesses” in the days when they were still all blonde and all hostesses.
The movie is moronic. But one hates to prejudge. Marc Camoletti’s comedy ran five years in London in 1962, then lasted just 19 performances on Broadway. The new revival, directed by Matthew Warchus (“Art”), received a bunch of delirious reviews in London. On Broadway, Christine Baranski is the housekeeper, played by Thelma Ritter in the movie.
There was a time, soon after 9/11, when producers wondered if traumatized audiences would be craving escapism. When Broadway reopened, the first new show was “Urinetown,” the dark musical satire that ridiculed such suddenly revered institutions as police, capitalists and government. But instead of shrinking from the tough comedy, theatergoers embraced it as a release.
In contrast to fears of America’s emotional fragility, the box office continued to boom for the Nazi jokes and identity humor in “The Producers.” Instead of rejecting bad-taste delights, Broadway enjoyed watching puppets sing “Everyone’s a little bit racist” in “Avenue Q” and, later, the goofy but daring gay and Jewish jokes in “Spamalot.”
For me, comedy-without-subtext is the hardest to love. When I want to be entertained without having to participate emotionally - as I often do - there is plenty to enjoy for free on TV.
Why do we need theater for that? And why now? Asked what comedy works on Broadway today, Mason demurs, “I have no idea what does and doesn’t work.” He claims that before he made his Broadway debut more than two decades ago, “The so-called geniuses said I’d flop. So much for the geniuses.”
On the other hand, when the tweedy Englishman in “The 39 Steps” is weary from too many parties and rumors of war, he rejects suicide and decides to find something else to do. “Something mindless and trivial. Something utterly pointless. I know!” he says, brightening. “I’ll go to the theater!” And so he can.