'Two Unrelated Plays by Mamet'

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The biggest surprise that comprises "Two Unrelated Plays by David Mamet" is that "The Duck Variations," with its focus on language in a seemingly early but already impressive stage of development, actually was written 35 years before the mostly sophomoric "Keep Your Pantheon," which received its world premiere in 2007 as a BBC 3 radio play (and so this is its world premiere stage production).

The second surprise is that neither play is likely to be of more than passing interest except to Mamet fans.

Still, being Mamet, both plays are immaculately structured and paced, and both offer engagingly meaty parts.

"Duck" features Harold Gould and Michael Lerner as strangers who one afternoon share the same park bench, as well as 45 minutes of dialogue, in and around the habits of ducks, with passing references to other facts of nature.

It's like a series of captions from a random assortment of pleasant New Yorker cartoons ("It's a good thing to have a perspective, but you shouldn't let it get in the way"); taken overall, nothing much happens, the observations are only intermittently amusing, and it probably helps to have been there. The afternoon on which the strangers meet is broken up into about 15 interludes, marked by the stage darkening for a few seconds.

Gould and Lerner do their best to breathe the passion of eternal if cranky humanity into their characters, and they have the audience laughing pretty much all the way through with their batty, self-referencing chatter. If you expect something linguistically stylized from Mamet, given the setup you might be disappointed.

By contrast, tricked out in an enthusiastic production with endearingly amateurish overtones, "Pantheon" is almost defiantly a conventional sort of verbal slapstick comedy set in ancient Rome and accompanied as it must be by a total lack of conventional wisdom. Instead, Mamet mines a rich vein of self-interest primarily expressed by the characters in the all-male cast in their desire to bed a virginal young acting student (Michael Cassidy).

It is the rogue bull of a lecherous failed actor (Ed O'Neill) who drives the action in his attempt to avoid fiscal bankruptcy (having already achieved every other kind) while leading the large cast of 11 around for "Pantheon's" 45 minutes until all the story lines are explored and the chase after filthy lucre and other decadent pleasures can begin again. The humor is about at the level a university fraternity might achieve if sufficiently inspired. True, there is a good throwaway barb thrown by O'Neill at critics, but it would do more damage in a better play.

Aside from Cassidy and O'Neill, for whom no line is too low or foolish, the cast mostly seems uncertain where their best readings lie. Even David Paymer as O'Neill's sidekick, who is usually such a consummate craftsman and audience favorite, seems confused at times.
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