Twenty-five years ago, the testosterone-driven profanity of David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” startled audiences. Today, in the Atlantic Theater Co.’s new, uneven production of the play and its companion piece, “The Duck Variations,” it is the whiplash switch in cadences between the two works that immediately grabs the ear.
After intermission, the rocking-chair beat of the two old men observing ducks and life from a park bench in “Duck Variations” abruptly gives way to the blustering crap-shoot rat-a-tat-tat of their much younger male counterparts in “Sexual Perversity.” But the plays have more than an author in common: As they contemplate their own death through bird-watching, Emil (John Tormey) and George (Peter Maloney) in “The Duck Variations” engage in a gentler but no less intensely combative game of one-upsmanship than the one played by Bernard (Clark Gregg), the alpha male, and Danny, his womanizing disciple, in “Sexual Perversity.”
Young or old, the boys just can’t help it. How differently, and yet vividly, the two sets of characters express the male ethos is the best proof of Mamet’s talent. Even as far back as 1974, when these early plays were written and first performed, he possessed perfect pitch with regard to these four voices.
Director Hilary Hinckle has an easy time of it with the simpler but more accomplished “Duck Variations.” Emil and George sit on a park bench to perform 14 variations on the theme. The lighting, by Robert Perry, barely dims between scenes, and Hinckle is blessed with two actors who give full service to Mamet’s language. Tormey and Maloney are battleships who keep each other alive by sounding off as they pass in the late afternoon.
Bernard and Danny in “Sexual Perversity” obliterate any such thoughts of mortality with their fetishistic, tunnel-vision approach to the opposite sex. It’s now a critical cliche to point out that Mamet’s women are no match for his men; Deborah (Kate Blumberg) and her on-again-off-again roommate, Joan (Kristin Reddick) have little life beyond Danny and Bernard, even though the two women share several scenes.
Mamet gives Joan two monologues before her kindergarten class, but these moments do less to reveal character than to score variations on his theme of sexual domination. What’s missing between the two women are the distinctive cadences of everyday speech that bring Mamet’s men to such remarkable life.
It’s difficult to criticize Blumberg and Reddick for not nearly matching the vibrancy of the men’s performances. They’re especially diminished by an excessively realistic production, if “realistic” is quite the right word for Alexander Dodge’s set design, which overloads the stage with very used furniture that is supposed to represent a bar, a cocktail lounge, a bedroom, an office, a school room, two living rooms and a few other multi-use playing spaces.
On this peculiar playing field, Hinckle’s direction ends up giving equal weight to every scene, where in fact, the actresses might have been better served by a simpler, more stark production that emphasized, rather than tried to negate, their secondary status.