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Primary Objective How Laurie Metcalf keeps a straight face (most of the time) in David Mamet's new political farce "November."
Laurie Metcalf may have the straightest face in comedy. But she confesses that she and co-star Dylan Baker are pushed to limits of their endurance by star Nathan Lane, who headlines David Mamet's new political farce November at the Barrymore.

"I have cracked up onstage, I must admit," says Metcalf, best known to TV audiences for journeyman work on such sitcoms as Roseanne and Norm, and better known to discerning theatregoers as a proud founding member of Chicago's scrappy Steppenwolf Theatre. "There are moments that Dylan and I just can't get through because of Nathan. He is so much fun to act with. He is so present, it's amazing."

Metcalf is no slouch herself as Clarice Bernstein, a presidential speechwriter with the sniffles, an unfortunate frizzy 'do and a significant subplot involving the baby girl she's adopted from China with her female partner. Called in to singlehandedly restore the sagging reelection campaign of Lane's flailing Commander-in-Chief, Bernstein extracts payment for a knockout speech by demanding a gay-marriage-by-presidential-fiat.

Whereas Lane and even Baker, as the president's coolly cynical consigliere, get off their share of zingers, the humor Metcalf mines springs almost entirely from character and situation.

"Things mean a lot to her--she's like a dog with a bone," Metcalf says of Bernstein, whose fixation on getting married becomes as strong her perfectionism as a speech-writer. "It's weirdly endearing when you see somebody fight that hard for something."

Indeed, in one remarkable moment before the intermission, Bernstein monopolizes the president's attention with a stirringly egalitarian vision of American democracy, and takes the play in a startling new direction.

"My friend Holland Taylor came to the show, and she talked about that moment," Metcalf recalls. "She said, 'That's when the brakes go on and sparks start flying.' The play switches, and so quickly--it's compelling, and it's a real jolt. When you're sitting there, in such capable hands, you've got to think: Now where are we going?"

Where the play eventually goes, surprisingly but somehow inevitably, is into a full-on farce involving exploding poultry, Indian poison darts and the threat of nuclear war.

"I was interested, after reading it on the page, to figure what the tone for this play would be," Metcalf recalls. "I couldn't tell until we read it for the first time with the director, Joe Mantello. We started out performing it as drily as possible, and I think what we ended up doing was a mixture of realism and outright farce. The style was consciously worked on throughout rehearsal."

In a deft move, Mamet refers only obliquely to current events; Lane's fictional Republican president, Charles H.P. "Chucky" Smith, is no particular ogre but instead a regular schlub who just happens, as his top advisor reminds him within the play's first five lines, to have "f***ed up everything you've touched."

"The audience loads in from that line on," says Metcalf, noting that the play's political resonance all but takes care of itself. "I think Mamet hit the exact right tone; it's not too cynical, in that it's not an out-and-out parody of what's happening right now. It's once removed, and there's more leeway in that--we're able to laugh rather than wince, because it's not so close to home."

Still, it's hard not to relish a line like the one that opens the second scene. Advisor to the president: "We can't build a fence to keep out the illegal immigrants." President: "Why not?" Advisor: "We need the illegal immigrants to build the fence."

As trenchant as that one-liner is, it was layered in, Metcalf says, because Mantello and Mamet felt they "needed a punch at the top of that scene. It was more for the shape of the scene than anything."

That's the kind of playwright's craft Mamet brings to the table. Metcalf is still awed: "It's hard to imagine that someone could work all this out in his head, without workshops." The play did change in rehearsals and previews, of course, but not fundamentally. Most of the changes, in fact, were trims.

"He cut a lot out," Metcalf says. "It was a shame, but to push the plot along a lot of funny stuff was cut. Those things are always hard to let go--especially for the actors. It's funny, David didn't have as much of a problem as we did with his cuts--you think he would have gotten attached to some of the great jokes in there, but he didn't."

What makes Metcalf's performance here, as in everything she's done, is the degree of bone-deep commitment she brings to the part. Though in some respects Clarice Bernstein is a risible caricature of an NPR-listening, Whole Foods-shopping, left-wing lesbian, for Metcalf she's so much more.

"As with any character, I've grown so attached to her," Metcalf says with evident affection. "She's a complicated little critter. She can be demanding and impatient, and just as rude as the president is. I love it when they snap at each other--it's like some hilarious dysfunctional marriage."

Has Metcalf conjured a mental image of Bernstein's spouse-to-be, who is never glimpsed onstage?

"I have," Metcalf says with a mischievous laugh. "I see her as super-huge, and just smashed into a wedding dress. I think I'm the dainty one."

Suddenly, Metcalf's ability to keep a straight face in the role seems even more super-human than we thought.

For more information about November, go here.