Seen on Broadway: David Mamet’s political farce November lets Nathan Lane be Nathan Lane, and that’s its core asset. After buttoned-up turns in revivals of The Odd Couple and Butley, the actor is unplugged as President Charles Smith, who combines the potty mouth of Richard Nixon with the IQ of the Oval Office’s current occupant. Short on funds and votes, at the end of his first term (and his rope), Smith and his unctuous aide-de-camp, Archer Nichols (Dylan Baker) scheme to wheedle an ever-growing pile of cash from the National Association of Turkey Manufacturers as the election, and Thanksgiving, loom. The key to their shakedown is getting Americans to turn against the symbol of our national holiday and embrace tuna fish instead—like I said, it’s a farce—a job for ace speechwriter Clarice Bernstein (Laurie Metcalf). But Bernstein, a lesbian who has just returned from China with an adopted baby on board, names her own price in return for a killer declaration—she would like the president to marry her and her partner, a test of whatever mettle Smith has left.

With director Joe Mantello cracking the whip on the pace, Mamet brings the funny, with Lane sending fusillades of four-lettered political incorrectness at an audience glad to have him back in his element. But the performer brings a good deal more to the play than the play brings to him, and by about the midpoint (the intermission was a mistake, given the show’s brevity and slenderness) impatience with all the silliness sets in. Mamet could have done more of a rip job on the state of the union, and had the actors to perform it (Baker and Metcalf are in fighting trim besides), so his scrawling on the margins frustrates.

Set designer Scott Pask and costume designer Laura Bauer up the laugh quotient at the Barrymore with their contributions. Pask’s Oval Office could pass for the real thing, but with skewed details: A globe turns out to be a liquor cabinet, and a copy of Stephen King’s Cujo is stashed among the law books. (Hey, at least this president reads.) All of the décor seems generic and second-hand, as if Smith realized his tenure would be brief so there was no point changing what had gone before. Regarding the costumes, the outsized wedding dress that Metcalf wears in the second act may well be its comic highpoint, as inspiration thins elsewhere. Paul Gallo’s lighting, with smooth day-to-night transitions, is staunch. Rare for a show these days, there is no credited sound designer. I assume the producers figured Lane would not need amplification, and they were correct. Its star makes the script for November a pardonable offense.

Speaking of offense, Harold Pinter would be thrilled at how the audience members seated behind me reacted to the 40th anniversary revival of The Homecoming, at the Cort. They squirmed and fidgeted, proclaimed it the “worst play they had ever seen,” and left in a huff. That they did not leave at the intermission is the fait accompli for the playwright—no matter how misogynistic you think the piece is, you want to see every nasty thing he dreams up, and stay at your seat, riveted.

The play is more a commentary on the war between the sexes, which was fomenting in the late ‘60s, and not an endorsement—not that Pinter’s intentions are ever clear. The combatants are the aging, vituperative Max (Ian McShane), who rules what roost there is in his shabby old house in North London. As Eugene Lee’s worn and frayed set makes clear, the house is emptied of all femininity, save for disparaging references to “birds” and “tarts” thrown about by Max and his low-life son Lenny (Raul Esparza). Max’s other son, would-be boxer Joey (Gareth Saxe), and his chauffeur brother Sam (Michael McKean) are more circumspect, and come across as sexually unformed. Definition is provided when Max’s other son, the family intellectual Teddy (James Frain), shows up unannounced, with his wife Ruth (Eve Best). Ruth sticks a shapely leg into the situation, and plays various roles—wife, lover, mother—to the men as she exerts a kind of control.

Best, who anchored last season’s Moon for the Misbegotten revival, is spectacular here; however the men try to put her in her place, she carefully, confidently finds wiggle room. Acting-wise, the production, directed by Daniel Sullivan, is unbalanced by the too-vigorous performance of the patriarchal McShane, the dynamic star of HBO’s Deadwood—only at the very end do we get the sense that Max is failing. Led by the magnetic Esparza, the three brothers are terrific, with Frain particularly accomplished in the show’s trickiest role (a mix of politesse and disdain). And McKean fits right in, too.

Lee’s set is exactly right in its corroded details, but the black borders placed around it seem to editorialize. (We get that this is a dark place, one that maybe we can dredge up in our subconscious.) Gone-to-seed is the right way to describe Kenneth Posner’s lighting and Jess Goldstein’s costumes—the latter smarten up considerably once Ruth enters the show in provocative poses. John Gromada’s even audio, meanwhile, ensures that we hear every sinister syllable and feel every insinuating pause in Pinter’s text.

Seen Off Broadway: Flawed but ambitious, Next to Normal, at Second Stage, is one of the season’s most compelling musicals. Dan (Brian d’Arcy James) and Diana (Alice Ripley) married young when both were architecture students in college, and 18 years later would appear to have a perfect life. Teenage daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) is in her angst phase, but her older brother Gabe (Aaron Tveit) is the son of every parent’s dreams. And that is the problem. Not all is as it appears to be, and some of what is happening is unfolding in Diana’s depression-shrouded imagination. Her pill popping and out-of-it behavior shadow her relationships with her husband, who is resigned to her caretaking despite a façade of good cheer, and her daughter, who begins to abuse drugs to cope with the strain. (Gabe constantly props her up.) The first act ends with a frustrated Dan getting Diana to commit to a course of electroshock treatments, under the care of the sympathetic Dr. Fine (Asa Somers); the second opens with Diana’s memory partially erased, as she comes to grips with her fractured family.

Michael Greif previously directed Rent, and the score, by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, has a similar, rock-inflected thrust and topicality. Our overmedicated culture is a fertile subject for a contemporary musical, and there are several strong numbers—indeed, every note sung by the underappreciated Ripley, in a wonderful, career-defining part at last, is a good one. All of the performers impress, including Adam Chanler-Berat as Natalie’s hesitant new boyfriend. There is, however, a cuteness to some of the material (Somers also plays another, less capable physician, “Madden”) that undercuts its overall impact, as if we needed an occasional upper to balance the downward trajectory the tormented Diana takes. I’d rather the show have been served straight, without anesthetizing metaphors and a banal, overemphatic song or two to make it more endearing.

But much of Next to Normal is just what the doctor ordered, and if doesn’t probe as deeply as it might it doesn’t become Harvey on Xanax, either. Mark Wendland’s three-tier set, with the orchestra placed on both sides of the top two floors, is a modified concert staging, with the book scenes mostly played on a few pieces of furniture on ground level. Panels suggest windows and, most strikingly, Diana’s haunted eyes. LD Kevin Adams has fit the structure with light bulbs, which come to blazing life most strikingly during the first act finale. Jeff Mahshie’s costumes are a perfect fit for imperfect characters, who keep up appearances despite their painful befuddlement. And the music could not be better expressed than it is via Brian Ronan’s superior sound design—missteps aside, this musical about the blues is turbo-charged from beginning to end.

Just when I thought it was safe to go back to the Daryl Roth Theatre, the Argentinean troupe behind the high-flying De La Guarda has launched Fuerzabruta. “De La Guarda—theatre, or a hostage situation?” a friend and colleague mused, and the new show continues the “brute force” antics. As a pummeling score builds to a shriek the audience (who stand for the duration of the 70-minute show) is herded into the middle of the black-curtained space, then continually massed back and forth as the performers do their circus/avant-garde/downtown happening thing. Creator and artistic director Diqui James attempts a Beckett-style story thread, as the troupe members, clad as working stiffs by costume designer Andrea Mattio, take their places on an imposing conveyer belt contraption and are thrust through walls of paper. Style quickly replaces substance, however, and it isn’t long before the rope-rigged performers are spinning overhead on outsized tinfoil-covered discs that begin to crumple from the weight. In the evening’s coup de theatre, a rectangular translucent surface awash with water lowers from the ceiling to within inches of the entire audience’s heads—the women in the company, wearing little more than body stockings, splash and skitter about as we (well, not me) paw and clutch at them.

Lighting designer Edi Pampin, sound designer Hernan Nupieri, and automation designer Alberto Figueiras, under the technical direction of Alejandro Garcia, push the aesthetic to its limits. The lighting instruments are used for big and bulky movements, the audio is overbearing, and the automation like something from the latest installment of the Saw movie series. The hipsters who crowded under an open hydrant to exult during the watery finale clearly picked up on the vibe—but, having seen De La Guarda three times (once by choice, the others from obligation) I found the bag of tricks a little empty on this second go-round with the company. For the uninitiated, particularly those prone to claustrophobia or immune to this type of pocket spectacle show: Hostage situation. —Robert Cashill

Equipment vendors:

Scenery: Hudson Scenic Studio Inc.
Lighting: PRG Lighting

The Homecoming
Scenery: Hudson Scenic Studio Inc.
Lighting: PRG Lighting
Audio: Sound Associates

Next to Normal
Scenery: Daedalus Design & Production Inc.
Lighting and audio: PRG

Lighting: GSD Productions
Audio: Sound Associates