Prior to the David Mamet main course being prepared on Broadway in the coming weeks with the revival of “Oleanna” and world premiere of “Race,” the Atlantic serves up an amuse-bouche that goes down easily enough but leaves little aftertaste in the double bill “Keep Your Pantheon” and “School.” The latter, up first, is a 10-minute verbal doodle in search of a punchline; the hourlong morsel that follows sees Mamet in ancient Rome continuing to indulge his recent taste for farce after “Romance” and “November.” The one-act yields a decent share of chuckles, many of them fueled by the droll delivery of Brian Murray.
It’s seldom a chore to listen to Mamet’s severed sentences and aggressive interrogations — especially in the hands of a director who understands the insistent music of the playwright’s language as well as long-term associate (and Atlantic a.d.) Neil Pepe. However, the wafer-thin “School” reads like jottings on a table napkin, with no evident purpose beyond fleshing out the program to barely acceptable length for a full-price Off Broadway ticket.
Two unnamed men, one possibly a schoolteacher (John Pankow), the other an administrator (Rod McLachlan), sit in the latter’s office debating the wisdom of a students’ poster campaign for recycling. (“Doesn’t that use a lot of paper?”) Their discursive conversation touches on semantics, marriage, history, war, child molesters and the precocious sexuality of Lower School students, circling back repeatedly to questions regarding the finite capacity for matter to be recycled and, finally, how that relates to the sharing of information.
This sketch about the absurdities of bureaucracy is such a throwaway it feels more like the exercise of a smartypants grad-school student writing in the style of David Mamet than a seriously considered piece by the man himself.
The playwright is trying a tad harder in the funnier and more substantial “Pantheon,” which ventures deeper into sketch territory, recalling the kind of gleefully anachronistic material mined back in the day by Sid Caesar or Carol Burnett.
A walking sight gag in a ratty toga belted under the gut, Murray plays Strabo, head of a Roman acting troupe whose fading fortunes have done little to diminish his ego or his sexual appetite for unattainable Philius (Michael Cassidy), a pretty young thing with neither talent nor intelligence, who is the master’s sole paying pupil.
Flanked by grumbling cynic Pelargon (Pankow), Strabo does his best to avoid their landlord’s demands for unpaid rent, while grasping at any work offer dangled his way, no matter how undignified. Paying gigs suddenly materialize when news arrives that a rival troupe has been lost at sea. But when Strabo and Co. hit the wrong address for a party performance at the villa of a rich aristocrat, their hoary Borscht Belt shtick inadvertently offends the recently humbled soldiers of the once-mighty Tenth African Legion, who need a sacrifice or three to mollify Caesar.
The broad antics juggle crises with narrow escapes deftly enough, even if the escalating momentum required of truly buoyant farce here comes in fits and starts. Dialogue substitutes bawdy humor for Mamet’s usually more aggressive profanity (think a more erudite Mel Brooks), and the vaudevillian actors — got up in Ilona Somogyi’s daffy costumes — are a game bunch, milking every ribald reference for all it’s worth.
Pankow’s jaded eyerolling plays nicely off Murray’s shlubby self-aggrandizement and pompous oratory. Cassidy also gets laughs with his clueless delivery and stiff gesticulation. Ditto Jack Wallace as a wily old drunken beggar, hawking wooden dildos and other erotic esoterica.
Steven Hawley punctuates the action as a herald, bellowing news updates and commercials for everything from Lynx Brand opium (“Look for the shining eyes on every packet”) to indestructible Egyptian sandals (“They just don’t wear out!”), a neat segue from the recycling discourse in “School” that’s just one way in which the plays are not entirely unrelated.
So they don’t add up to an awful lot and, like Ethan Coen’s “Offices” at the same address last season, it’s hard to imagine them landing a major Off Broadway slot without the playwright’s name. (Mamet also is a co-founder of the Atlantic.) But “Pantheon” delivers some hearty laughs, and even the American theater’s leading chronicler of bellicose masculinity needs to goof off once in a while.