VENUE: Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City (Through June 8)
The biggest surprise of the two David Mamet plays 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
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 — despite their considerably different
resources and subject matter — are immaculately structured and paced, and
both offer engagingly meaty parts, though in “Duck’s” case the two meaty
parts are interchangeable.
“Duck” features Harold Gould and Michael Lerner as strangers who one an
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 drawn increasingly from the circumstances of mortality.
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
relentlessly 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, who might have taken too literally to heart the key
qualities of the character he plays (beautiful, sexually desirable and
abysmally talentless) and O’Neill, for whom no line is too low or foolish
(“Love will bloom like the gorse on Mount Ida,” he proclaims with ardent
bluster), 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.
CAST: “The Duck Variations”: Harold Gould, Michael Lerner. “Keep Your
Pantheon”: Ed O’Neill, David Paymer, Michael Cassidy, Jack Wallace.
PLAYWRIGHT: David Mamet. DIRECTOR: Neil Pepe.