There’s more relation between “Two Unrelated Plays by David Mamet,” the breezy double bill at the Kirk Douglas, than the title suggests. Each one-act features blithe philosophers nattering away to pass time; each hinges on men’s efforts to persuade through sheer baloney; and each harks back to a different strain in the author’s career. Separately and together, the comedies have been shaped by helmer Neil Pepe into a crackerjack means of beating the summer heat.
An early example of the chopped, allusive style Mamet later perfected in “American Buffalo” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” curtain-raiser “The Duck Variations” has been kicking around for almost 40 years. That’s about how long Emil (Harold Gould) and George (Michael Lerner) appear to have been communing on their lakeside park bench to share perceptions of life, liberty and the pursuit of ducks.
The 14 variations, defined by Christopher Akerlind’s delicate half-blackouts, become a duet for Lerner’s trombone and Gould’s oboe, set to the rhythms of the Yiddish theater and alte kockers of every ethnicity. Lerner’s George is the expansive enthusiast incomplete without an audience (“Yes, in many ways Nature is our window to the world”). Gould makes Emil a reedy, wry commentator, tractable until disagreement demands a line be drawn in the sand (“I don’t want to hear it. If it’s false, don’t waste my time, and if it is true I don’t want to know”).
Thesps treat Mamet’s patterns of ellipses and non sequiturs as music to be savored, not affectation to be finessed. And they never court sentimentality by personalizing their own mortality as they consider the duck’s brief, violent life cycle. Their opinions remain airy and their reminiscences tart, leaving us to connect whatever dots we choose.
Companion piece “Keep Your Pantheon,” originally aired last year on BBC Radio 4, delivers on its promise of a raucous Roman farce, but the Caesar who comes to mind isn’t Julius, it’s Sid.
In Takeshi Kata’s painted canvas backdrops, Ilona Somogyi’s gaudily cliched armor and togas, and the cast’s face-front, there’s-the-camera acting style, “Pantheon” plays exactly like an extended “Your Show of Shows” sketch, with the addition of wooden dildos and man/boy love that would have been frowned upon by NBC in the early 1950s.
Top banana Ed O’Neill as Strabo, the bloviating windbag guru of a woebegone acting studio, pursues pelf and escapes scrapes with the aid of his own Carl Reiner (David Paymer, his face like a clenched fist as put-upon sidekick Pelargon); Howie Morris (Jack Wallace, shining as an affably drunken pixie); and Imogene Coca (“The O.C.’s” Michael Cassidy as Philius, Strabo’s dim but beautiful apprentice, who becomes everyone’s ardent inamorato).
For merry cameos, Pepe has ransacked past Mamet companies to recruit veterans J.J. Johnston, Steven Goldstein and Dominic Hoffman, all adopting the glazed-eyed, amusedly uncomfortable manner of variety show guest stars.
The action is even interrupted by commercials, as herald Vincent Guastaferro strolls in to hawk Peloponnesian Syrup of Myrtle (“Ask for it by name”) and Bactrian Lynx Brand Opium (“Get high and stay high”).
The play elicits hearty laughs at the expense of the aristocracy, military and theater types (including critics, of course), though as a relative newcomer to the farce form Mamet tends to flit from crisis to crisis, instead of layering complications to build to an explosive finish.
Still, “Pantheon” is infinitely funnier than either of the scribe’s full-length excursions into the genre, “Romance” or “November,” and offers a key link to his longtime preoccupation with con artists in Strabo, the Sgt. Bilko of impresarios — speaking of whom, O’Neill brings considerable Phil Silvers ease to a role that would be susceptible to excess in other hands.
Cassidy’s endearing dizziness as the dewily talent-free acolyte, and Gould’s increasingly frustrated sputtering to recall a kind of duck that sounds like “cantaloupe,” are as funny as anything in town this year. You won’t need a hit of Lynx Brand to get a bang out of this slight but diverting entertainment.