The American Repertory Theatre (recently renamed TheatER) concludes their season with a celebration of David Mamet's work called "Sex, Satire, Romance, and Ducks." Kicking off the festival was the much lauded Romance, which I was unfortunately unable to see. The Mamet Double Bill currently playing at Zero Arrow Theatre provides dichotomous productions of two of Mamet's one-acts proving why this playwright has earned his merit as a master of American drama and why young actors can rarely do his work justice.
The first act of the double bill is The Duck Variations - pun, no doubt, intended. The framing device of two men on a park bench pontificating life, death, and ecological disaster is certainly not new (i.e. Albee's Zoo Story and Lee Blessing's A Walk in the Woods). But in the masterful hands of Mamet and the talented company of the A.R.T., the play soars with revelation like post-modern scripture. Like many of Mamet's plays, the dialogue is about everything and nothing. Two aging men sit on a park bench discussing the first signs of spring: ducks, boats, the vernal signifiers of regeneration. Yet as the play progresses, the seemingly absurd dialogue slips into philosophy on life, relationships, and death.
The most rewarding aspect of the production is the simplicity of staging and mastery of presence. Director Marcus Stern serves the script with reverence and simplicity allowing the script to take center stage over concept or spectacle. The only perceived directorial staging is a moment where the two men stand from the park bench while narrating the plight of a duck in flight during hunting season. The fact that the pedestrian act of standing from a park bench should register as a directorial decision confirms the fact that the production of The Duck Variations achieves its intended purpose of presenting a slice of life naturalistically while delivering philosophy that is both topical and universal.
The credit for the production, however, cannot deny the talent of Will Lebow and Thomas Derrah. As company members of the A.R.T., I must admit I have grown tired of seeing their stock performances over time. Will Lebow typically hides behind his voice while Thomas Derrah over-performs his characters. However, as this play is about two men who have known each other for a long time, the familiarity of these two actors not only works, but adds to the production. Will Lebow's simplicity as George is, quite possibly, one of his strongest performances in recent memory. Thomas Derrah's character, though slightly over-dramatized, displays this masterful character actor's command. The Duck Variations is the epitome of what the A.R.T. does well: a company of talented actors bringing to life quality dramatic texts under the auspices of creative direction.
Whereas the first one-act of the evening is a lesson in how to do Mamet right, the second act, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, is how to do Mamet wrong. A production by the students of the MXAT Institute (A.R.T.'s MFA training program), Sexual Perversity in Chicago is more like a series of painful presentations in an Acting 101 class. The direction, design, and performances are so ill-conceived and executed one can only wonder how these students are earning MFA's and why A.R.T. would include this aberration as part of their mainstage season. Directed by Dramaturgy student Paul Stacey, the play takes place all over the Zero Arrow Theatre space making transitions laborious and highlighting the lack of focus that seems to be a central theme to the production. Not one of the actors conveys a sense of purpose, relationship, or identity in a play that is essentially about relationships and identity. Looking into the eyes of these actors is like watching a blank screen with no connection to their characters, words, or action. The diction of the actors is precise to a fault, as if they were reading their lines for a hearing-impaired audience. Likewise, the design of the show is less than A.R.T. standards with costumes that look like they were pulled from a rack at Garment District, unfocused lighting and a minimalist set that impeded rather than improved the production. I am more than willing to concede to the standards of academic theatre; however, this production is worse than most undergraduate productions in Boston. I have high hopes for Diane Paulus' assumption as Artistic Director of the A.R.T. Here's hoping that an overhaul of the MXAT Institute is part of her plan.