The Atlantic Theater's production of Two Unrelated Plays: School and Keep Your Pantheon
by David Mamet, directed by long-time collaborator Neil Pepe, arrives at what some critics
consider a moment of crisis in the playwright's career. The plays coincide with a Broadway revival of his Oleanna
that's met with a decidedly lukewarm reception
despite (or perhaps because of) its big-name cast, and an upcoming Broadway premiere of his new play Race
. One immediately wonders if Mamet isn't trying to make up for the tepid reactions to Oleanna
, last year's Speed-the-Plow
and American Buffalo
by adding some new pieces to the conversation.
As a long-time fan of the playwright's irreverent and caustic dialog, I laughed quite a bit at the Two Unrelated Plays
' typical Mamet-speak and Mamet-wit. Aside from one major quibble in the longer piece, Keep Your Pantheon
, the plays work well and provoke a kind of thirst for more Mametâ�‚��€œYou know, a couple of quick hits to whet our whistles and get people talking about him ahead of his Broadway premiere. Not surprisingly, then, I felt that these two (truly) unrelated plays lacked a density that I had come to expect from Mamet, a hunger to attack very troubling emotions and situations head on and not have any qualms about the outcome. As a result, these plays are filled instead with language and subject matter that risk nothing, and in doing so allow the audience to gain just as much.
opens the evening on a sparsely appointed stage featuring two men, one brown desk and two chairs. From the props and simple brown background, as well as the absent-minded-professor wardrobes of the two men, it's conveniently apparent that we were in a school. As the lights go up, Rod McLachlan and John Pankowâ�‚��€œwho appear on the playbill as merely A and B, respectivelyâ�‚��€œimmediately dive into a hurried exchange that begins from the question of how to best dispose of a wall full of posters created by studentsâ�‚��€œbecause that's all students really do anyway, make postersâ�‚��€œveers haphazardly into an argument for and against recycling, hair-pins into a physics discussion of matter, loops back around to question the verdict of the Dresden bombings in regards to said physics, and finally T-bones into the conundrum of who in the school actually has control of the custodians. I don't think there has been a more high-octane 12 minutes (roughly) of Mamet-speak since Glenngarry Glen Ross
, and I found myself smiling and trying to listen as hard as I could so as not to miss a witticism.
With characteristic verbal gymnastics, the typical misappropriated phrases of a less existential Becket, and self-referential riffingâ�‚��€œlike a musical loop played by a two-man band being built upon until it becomes an entire orchestrated movementâ�‚��€œSchool
ultimately focuses on the way that information is transmitted, or rather, the way information is not transmitted and lost in the translation. The performances of the two veterans of the stage are bright and solid, and their timing perfect, but the material lacks that depth seen in previously Mamet plays. Everyone knows that recycling is a double edged sword (where does the energy come from to recycle the recyclables, etc...), unions are a pain in the ass to deal with as an administrator, and that matter (such as the city of Dresden) can neither be created nor destroyed. In the hands of Mamet, these hackneyed notions are portrayed as significant revelations, like he had just discovered them on Wikipedia and was really excited to tell us all about it. Though very entertaining, after the sprint of a play I felt no different about any of the issues raised and really felt nothing at all except happy from laughing. If this was Mamet's intention then it was a success, but if he means for us to come away with something new it didn't work so well.
The second half of Two Unrelated Plays
, Keep Your Pantheon
, transports the audience back to an ancient Rome that is decidedly more modern in tone and subject matter than any barbarian-conquering capital of an empire you might read about in the history books. Aside from the sets (think thatched roofs and cartoon-ish painted-on Doric columns), costumes (togas!), and a few turns of phrase here and thereâ�‚��€œmost notably the constant invocation of "the gods": whether cursing them or praising them, there is a lot of bothâ�‚��€œthe dialogue might have been culled from any modern troupe of actors. Raucous Weinberg-esque live drum solos punctuated the end of each scene and change, signaling the appearance of a Herald (a very animated Steven Hawley) to introduce the next one in a very Shakespearean manner, but not before slipping in a quick advertisement for some Ancient Roman product in a tired wink at media infiltration of the arts and product placement. Despite this passing commentary on the modern funding problems that theater faces, essentially, this play is about actors.
exaggerates the shitty life of the stage actor, the thankless work and the terrible (or non-existent) pay. The play follows a troupe of actors and their quest for fame, if one can really call a very old, washed up child actor, his practical yet unambitious friend, and their young protege and object of sexual desire a full team of players. The play works as a celebration of, and cynical essay on the actor's craft, but could surely have done without one of its most prominent and recurring features: gay jokes.
I was unsure if the title, Keep Your Pantheon
, was simply a little darling of a pun that Mamet didn't have the guts to murder
or if it was actually a call to the head of the troupe, Strabo (the ever versatile and sonorous Brian Murphy), to keep it in his pants. The play was not yet five minutes old when a pauper (who, spoiler alert, turns out to be the savior of the troupe) comes around selling "charms" from some forgotten war and pulls out a ten inch wooden dildo and a string of carved wooden anal beads. And that's just the beginning: Mamet piles it on from there. I'm still not quite sure where he was heading with the gay jokes, as I waited for something to provide some relevant context for them, but it never came (no pun intended).
The wanton desire of the very old Strabo for the very young and naive Phillius (Michael Cassidy) goes from being in keeping with the ancient Roman setting to verging on the creepy. If the lust had been returned by the boy, or even acknowledged by him, it might not have seemed so wrong. But the sexual charge remains completely one-sided, with Strabo even going so far as to acknowledge the fact that the boy has no talent and is only around because he's easy on the eyes, enforcing the voyeuristic notion of the old man who just likes to watch
. The problem, really, is that for a play very concerned with sexuality, Pantheon
contributes nothing new to its portrayal one way or the other, but merely plays on the lust of an old man for a boy for laughs. In Roman tales of old there are of course examples of this and it was quite acceptable, but in the contemporary context this recurring joke cheapens the play and makes it a bit more awkward to watch.
Clearly, gay jokes about ancient Romans will play well to a certain kind of audience and sell tickets, but I really think Mamet relied on this too much, which in turn took away from the crux and truly deft part of his play about acting. Keep Your Pantheon
is an empathetic journey for any stage actor who has ever had a rival get a part over them; missed a chance to land a lucrative role or get the starring part because some information arrived too late; peaked early and loves to bring up the good ole days; or has just plain felt like all was lost and had to remember why they wanted to act in the first place. It's an anthem for the wonderful artists who populate today's theater and a well executed homage to how hard these players work and the little thanks they get for it. As the play follows Strabo's troupe through a botched performance, which puts their heads very literally on the chopping block, to his heartfelt pleading for their lives, to the misery and despair portrayed by the troupe as they learn that their rivals stole their gig, Mamet takes the viewer through the paces and emotions of making a living in theater. The question of motivation (and more importantly, sincerity) is also raised, and one sees the battle being waged within Strabo between love of the craft and the art, and the desire for fame and money.
Both actors and "normal people" can immediately appreciate the troupe's circumstances in Keep Your Pantheon
and commiserate with missed opportunity and the quest for success, but it is not until the last moment that Mamet seems to offer us any opinion on the subject other than to show us how it is. As the play closes the audience learns, rather abruptly, that Strabo has given up the tutelage of his young lust object so he can get the money to go to a festival, and has instead set the boy up for a new career in, of all things, real estate. Upon hearing this news, the drunk in the background, who laid motionless until then, springs to his feet and screams: "In this market?!" The audience laughs, of course, but it seems almost out of habit (trying to go into that business right now is funny, right?) rather than actual comic effect. At the haphazard mention of the boy's new profession (another failed actor) I thought of Glengarry
, and wondered if Mamet hadn't thrown the last joke in there to remind us what he's capable of, even though these two quick plays fall a little short.
(photo credit: Ari Mintz)