As the REM song goes, “It’s the end of the world as we know it — and I feel fine.” But for the two mismatched characters in “The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville,” life isn’t so free and easy — at least not at first — as they deal with their last-man-standing status with song, dance and schtick. Existential angst is here performed by appealing opposites Mandy Patinkin and downtown performance artist Taylor Mac. The odd coupling works well, each playing to his own strengths in this musical two-hander that starts off twee but ends up terrific. The show will please both artists’ camps and looks promising for future engagements, but whether it crosses over to the mainstream will depend on theatergoers’ attraction to high concept and low comedy.
Directed by Broadway regular Susan Stroman (“The Producers,” “The Scottsboro Boys”), with musical direction by Paul Ford, this strange but tasty brew of pop cultures is receiving a high-profile berth at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.
Clever, ever-upbeat and clad in baggy pants, Mac’s character arrives on a post-apocalyptic isle and soon encounters the grizzled, wary and depressed Patinkin, playing an old-time entertainer no doubt born — and now sheltered — in a trunk.
The big idea for the musical is that they only communicate through popular song. Demonstrating the potency of familiar tunes, Taylor begins to lift Patinkin out of his funk with infectious ditties that range from James Van Huesen/Sammy Cahn’s “Walking Happy” to Burton Lane/E. Y. Harburg’s “The Begat” (from “Finian’s Rainbow”), stimulating Patinkin’s muscle memory to engage in some showbiz high-stepping.
It’s “Waiting for Godot” meets iPod shuffle as the duo, depending on their mood swings, perform a widely diverse set of songs, either in full or in snippets. Gradually they form an odd bond, one that’s as changeable as the still-devastating weather as they alternate in buoying each other’s spirits in their disintegrating new world.
The show’s attraction lies in its musical yin and yang. Mac’s character is sweet-faced and robust, full of joy and hope — until he isn’t, as reflected in Gillian Welch’s “My Morphine, Peter Allen’s “Quiet Please, There’s a Lady on Stage” and Mac’s self-penned “Fear.” Patinkin’s character, on the other hand, is more troubled from the start, but his character soon can’t resist the humanity and humor in his companion’s relentless resiliency.
The show begins with creaky vaudeville routines: Musical hat-and-cane sequences and comic bits that would feel right at home in a silent comedy. But as the production moves on, their relationship deepens and soon finds its heart and humanity, beginning with Patti Griffin’s “Making Pies” and Randy Newman’s “Snow.”
Sometimes the show overreaches, such as when “My Country Tis Of Thee” segues into Sondheim’s “Another American Anthem” (from “Assassins”) in a juxtaposition that apparently wants to signify more than is shorthanded here. But whenever the mood gets too glum or portentous, there’s another entry from the songbook to lighten the load. Even the transitory nature of sexuality is delightfully toyed with in Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh’s “Real Live Girl,” Richard Rodgers’ “The Carousel Waltz” and Tom Waits’ “If You Ain’t Got Nobody.”
In the end, there’s a sweet, zenlike acceptance at play as natural forces force the duo on yet another new adventure, accompanied to Paul Simon’s “American Tune” and a nursery song that’s as simple and wise as a dream.
Stroman works in miniature here, giving each man small gestures, movements and moments that land beautifully. But she also allows for some well-placed and playful stage turns, too.
Beowulf Boritt’s set reflects the low-tech nature of the piece with just the right amount of polish. But much of the show’s power comes in the production’s far-from-obvious song selections, adding up to a wondrous, haunting soundscape to nicely accompany the end of days.