In every presidential election, we’re told that this is a turning point in our nation’s history. This time, one candidate’s election would make history while the other says her election would bring disaster.
Two Long Island theatrical productions — one a fictional farce riffing on 21st century presidential politics and the other a history-based musical that revisits the birth of the United States — offer disparate glimpses of American leadership. The Peter Stone/Sherman Edwards musical “1776” at the Engeman Theater at Northport and “November” by David Mamet, presented by the Hampton Theatre Company in Quogue, run through the Sunday before the election.
Before the Declaration of Independence can be drafted, Ben Franklin tells John Adams, both zealots for the cause of freedom from King George’s tyranny, “You’ve got to get along with these people who are the cream of their colonies.”
Adams was regarded by fellow delegates to the Continental Congress as “obnoxious and disliked.” And Jamie LeVerdiere plays him that way as the calendar in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall passes from April to July. Only his correspondence with Abigail back home in Massachusetts oftens him. “The musical reflects some of the same struggles we’re dealing with now,” says LaVerdiere. “You have to act civilly in order to compromise.”
The “compromise” that made a vote for independence possible was the surrender of a basic right. The Southern delegations would vote “no” unless the clause abolishing slavery was stricken. LaVerdiere’s Adams is apoplectic until Franklin calms him down. And Abigail, for her part, agrees, with a tender sense of humor, that her husband, indeed, can be obnoxious.
Yet the issue she cared most about personally wasn’t even up for discussion in the document that declared “all men are created equal.’’
Jennifer Hope Wills, who plays Abigail, says she prepared for the role by reading some letters written by the woman who would succeed Martha Washington as the nation’s first lady. “Remember the ladies when drafting a code of laws for the fledgling nation,” she wrote to her husband in a letter dated March 31, 1776, adding: “All men would be tyrants if they could.”
“She was far ahead of her time,” says Wills, noting that it would be nearly 150 years before women were granted suffrage and 240 years before a woman was nominated by a major party for president. “She called it hypocrisy that women had no voice or representation,” says Wills, once a history major before switching to theater.
As with any David Mamet play, “it’s all about people who want something and what they’ll do to get it,” says Andrew Botsford, who plays President Charles Smith in “November,” Mamet’s 2008 political farce. It’s a week before the election and what the president wants is to be re-elected. But that’s impossible, according to the polls. So Smith settles for raising money to build a library and a legacy. But as he moves to shake down a representative of the Turkey lobby who’s arrived at the Oval Office to secure the traditional pre-Thanksgiving pardon for a lucky bird, Smith holds out hope that an avalanche of ad buys can rescue him.
One of the direct overlaps with the current election, Botsford says, is the president’s plan to thwart illegal immigration. “His chief of staff points out, ‘You can’t build a fence to keep the illegals out. You need the illegals to build the fence.’ ”
Many of the other “November” laugh lines are too blue to quote here.
“Most of Mamet’s plays are about men in suits,” Botsford notes. “Honesty is the last of the lost arts here and there are some scary things said. The trick is to say it in a way that’s not scary,” Botsford says. “Otherwise, it’s not funny.”
Director Diana Marbury compares Botsford’s performance with that of Nathan Lane, who played President Smith on Broadway. “There’s a lot to chew on,” she says, “but Nathan mostly chewed on the scenery.”
Rebecca Edana as the president’s speechwriter is the moral center of the play, though she, too, wants something. She wants to president to arrange a same-sex marriage with her partner. “That’s the only thing that dates the play,” Marbury says. “Same-sex marriage was still illegal in 2008.
“We’re having lots of fun with this in the crazy political climate we’re in right now,” Marbury adds.
WHEN | WHERE Through Nov. 6. Upcoming: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, 250 Main St.
TICKETS $71-$76; 631-261-2900, engemantheater.com
WHEN | WHERE Through Nov. 6. Upcoming: 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Hampton Theatre Company at Quogue Community Hall, 125 Jessup Ave.
TICKETS $30 ($25 seniors, $15 younger than 35, $10 students) 866-811-4111, hamptontheatre.org