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Two Unrelated Plays

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Rod McLachlan and John Pankow.
Photo by Ari Mintz.

Just the title of the new double bill at the Atlantic Theater Company strains credibility practically to the snapping point. Two Unrelated Plays By David Mamet. Have any two of Mamet's plays ever been unrelated? Turning on an unapologetically masculine worldview, loaded with bitter and unexpected humor, and packed with NASCAR-speed dialogue that prods, pricks, and punches even in its lightest moments, Mamet's works - long or short - are always identifiably his. In the mini shows that make up the Atlantic evening that Neil Pepe has directed, "School" and "Keep Your Pantheon," that continues to be a good thing.

Of the two, the first, "School," is much closer to traditional Mamet: two guys sitting in a room, talking about nothing and yet somehow talking about everything. Here the room is an elementary school classroom and the men are apparently an educator (Rod McLachlan) and a parent (John Pankow). The situation: The father is stymied by the presence of hundreds of hand-painted posters lining the school's hallway, all of which read "I will protect my planet by recycling paper." But isn't that itself a waste of paper? Are the posters painted on recycled paper? If so, can they be recycled again? Indefinitely? And if so, is the energy used in all that recycling really helping the environment?

These are heavy questions that feel feather-light when given the Mamet treatment. But that's the play's backhanded benefit. As it gradually becomes as much about politics, unhappy marriages, and even the bombing of Dresden as it does about the issue of the paper itself, the show becomes a strangely powerful vivisection of the PC educational mindset. Want to know about the energy loss of recycling? Ask the science teacher. Curious about whether Dresden was a Strategic Target? The history teacher knows. And what happens to the paper at the end of its useful lifespan - whatever that is - is a question for Custodial Services, just don't call them janitors. It's only everyone else that knows anything.

Given Mamet's recent and public conversion to conservatism, it's hard not to see "School" as a salvo against any forces that see the point of school as everything except actually teaching students. But it advocates strongly against promoting a certain scientific philosophy or lifestyle without pausing to consider its ultimate ramifications, or even whether it makes a shred of sense. Whether you consider that a left- or a right-leaning view will probably determine what message you take away from the show: You'll likely either be impressed by Mamet's wailing on one of the most sacred of cows or insulted that he'd dare impugn the motives of well-meaning teachers, administrators, and jan... custodial service technicians. But because McLachlan and Pankow have copiously oiled their machine-gun timing, and because Pepe has provided exactly the spare, declarative staging their exchange requires, you're sure to laugh yourself right into that contemplation.

John Pankow, Michael Cassidy, and Brian Murray..
Photo by Ari Mintz.

If "Keep Your Pantheon" is three times as long, it cuts only about a third as deep. This takeoff of Ancient Roman comedy centers on the travails of three members of an acclaimed acting studio - the owner, Strabo (Brian Murray); his associate, Pelargon (Pankow); and their apprentice, Philius (Michael Cassidy) - over the course of one eventful day. Struggling for cash and unable to pay their rent for the fourth month in a row, the trio accepts a job entertaining an influential senator. But they end up instead at the armory for a legion of soldiers who don't take kindly to the troupe's making light of their recent, first-ever defeat, which puts Strabo's, Pelargon's, and Philius's heads on the fast track to the chopping block.

There are plenty of moments of sublime silliness throughout. The aged Strabo's fruitless lusting after the young, strapping, and awesomely untalented Philius. The way a Herald (Steven Hawley) sets every new scene, but can't resist throwing in an ad or two ("Peloponnesian Syrup of Myrtle - Rectifies the humours. Patricians use it, you can use it, too!"). Ilona Somogyi's costumes, which range from simple peasant garb to improbably endowed codpieces to an elaborately gaudy wolf-eats-Centurion look for the ranking officer (Jordan Lage) of the house Strabo and his group profane. The ancient merchant, Ramus (a grizzled and funny Jack Wallace), who's doggedly followed by luck both good and bad as he "helps" Strabo out of mess after mess.

But despite an engagingly twisty plot, a particularly fine performance from the deadpan Murray, and a brilliant curtain line, "Keep Your Pantheon" is too tame in both content and style to satisfy the way Mamet's best plays do. A grand payoff, something explaining how and why all these wafer-thin pieces collide the way they do, never comes - the play's frivolousness never supports a more meaningful point, the way other deceptively complex Mamet plays (such as Speed-the-Plow and November, both of which have been seen in New York recently) manage. That's a noticeable deficit, especially in the immediate wake of the challenging "School," which is far more subversive than most plays so short usually dare to attempt.

More common are the likes of the wispy entries comprising Almost an Evening and Offices, Ethan Coen's short-play trilogies that Pepe has directed for the Atlantic the last two years. Those are momentarily entertaining, but forgettable, less dazzling theatrical works than brainstorming on its feet. In both "School" and "Keep Your Pantheon," Mamet has delivered complete and fulfilling plays that suffer primarily because of their direct comparison with each other. But even that's acceptable - Pepe and the Atlantic obviously thought that two new "unrelated" Mamet plays were better than no new Mamet at all (at least until Race opens in December). That's hard to argue with, regardless of where you stand on the use of recycled paper in schools.

Two Unrelated Plays
Through November 1
Linda Gross Theater, 330 West 20 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticket Central

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