25 December 2013

'The Last Two People On Earth'

In a crowded month of theater for me, as well as a somewhat varied one (one straight play—plus another one at the end of November—one monodrama, one dance-theater piece), comes now a self-described “apocalyptic vaudeville” presented by the Classic Stage Company (in association with Except For This LLC, executive producer Staci Levine; and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts).  Aside from the theater’s own promotional blurb (“It’s the end of the world as we know it.  A flood of biblical proportions leaves us with only two people on Earth, who discover their common language is song and dance”), I had no idea what to expect when Diana, who shares the CSC subscription, and I went down to the Lower East Side to the Abrons Arts Center, the performing and visual arts facility of the renowned Henry Street Settlement, on a snowy, blustery, and cold Saturday, 14 December, for the evening performance of The Last Two People On Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville co-conceived and performed by Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac singing a mix of music by Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, R.E.M., The Pogues, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, and others.  (The two remaining co-conceivers are Susan Stroman, who choreographed and directed, and Paul Ford, the show’s musical director.)  It was the opening night of 18 performances which are scheduled to end on 31 December. 

The Classic Stage Company was founded by Christopher Martin at Rutgers Presbyterian Church on West 73rd Street in 1967 and has made its home on East 13th Street in the East Village since 1985.  (Martin, who focused the theater’s repertory on European classics, was forced out in 1985 when the company’s board insisted that the theater shift direction to more popular American fare.)  CSC still maintains a commitment to “re-imagining the classical repertory for contemporary audiences.”  Over the years, I’ve seen quite a few productions there, including a fascinating two-part revival of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt in November 1981 (and a less fascinating original play by David Ives—better known now for Venus in Fur, 2010, also at CSC—about Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Jewish philosopher, entitled New Jerusalem, 2008).  (I have a report on a Washington, D.C., revival of Ives’s Venus in Fur on ROT; see 11 July 2011.)

The Abrons Center, at 466 Grand Street between Pitt and Willet Streets, was originally built as the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1915.  (The Henry Street Settlement, a not-for-profit social service agency, was founded in 1893.)  The Abrons has been a performance venue continuously, but under various names, starting with the Neighborhood Playhouse: Henry Street Playhouse (1927), Harry De Jur Playhouse (1967); from 1970, Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre occupied the De Jur.  (NFT has moved its administrative offices, but it still produces at the Abrons, among other venues.)  The current building, incorporating the 1915 theater, opened in 1975 and was landmarked in 1989; a complete renovation occurred in the 1990s.  The facility houses the 350-seat Playhouse (the original Neighborhood Playhouse), the 75-seat black-box Experimental Theater, and the Underground Theater which accommodates 99 patrons.  Over the decades, some illustrious performers have appeared at the Abrons, from contemporary figures like the late Lou Reed, Philip Glass, and Rufus Wainwright, to artists out of performance history like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Aaron Copeland, Eartha Kitt, Orson Welles, and Agnes de Mille.

The 65-minute “workshop presentation” of Last Two People is “fully staged” by Stroman (Crazy for You, Tony – choreography, 1992; Show Boat, Tony – choreography, 1995; Contact, Tony – choreography, 2000; The Producers, Tony – choreography and directing, 2001) with live music performed by a trio led by Ford (Mandy Patinkin in Concert: "Dress Casual" – musical director, 1989; Mandy Patinkin in Concert: "Mamaloshen" – musical arranger, 1998; Celebrating Sondheim – musical director, 2002; An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin – conceiver and musical director, 2011).  Stroman was also the director and choreographer of the short-lived Broadway movical Big Fish which opened in October and will close this month and she will do the same services for the upcoming Bullets Over Broadway, another movical, scheduled to open next April.  Diana believes the producers are thinking Broadway ultimately, which may be so, but my guess is Last Two People is headed first for ART, the co-producer.  (When Diana called to find out where the Abrons is and how long the show runs, the CSC announcement said it’s 100 minutes, considerably longer than it actually is.  I suggest that, as a workshop—a program note even warns that the songs may change without notice—this incarnation of The Last Two People On Earth is still being tweaked and developed and may end up longer than the version Diana and I saw, which is probably wise if a Broadway or commercial Off-Broadway run is under consideration.  I guess we’ll find out.)

The New York Times theater writer Charles Isherwood called the pairing of Patinkin and Mac a “startling matchup” because “they come from radically different worlds.”  Patinkin is, of course, a Tony-winning Broadway actor and singer whose credits include Evita (1979 – Tony, 1980), Sunday in the Park With George (1984), The Secret Garden (1991), and The Wild Party (2000), as well as several concerts on Broadway (produced by Except For This and Staci Levine).  He famously starred on TV in Chicago Hope (1994-2000) and Criminal Minds (2005-2007), both of which shows he left precipitously; Patinkin currently appears in the Showtime series Homeland (2011-present).  Mac is a playwright, actor, singer-songwriter (one of his songs, “Fear [Itself],” is in the show), cabaret performer, performance artist, director, and producer who often appears in drag.  His past projects include Good Person of Szechwan at the Public (2013); A Midsummer Night’s Dream at CSC (2012); and The Lily’s Revenge (book, lyrics, and concept by Mac based on Noh plays) at HERE Arts Center, New York (2009); The Magic Theater, San Francisco (2011); Southern Rep, New Orleans (2012); and ART (2012).  The Village Voice crowned Mac the “Best Theater Actor” in New York for 2013.

Patinkin and Mac (the “characters” don’t have names—which works out fine since there’s no dialogue anyway) are survivors of a global flood that has wiped out everyone on earth except the two of them.  They find that their only common language is song and dance.  Sort of like Gogo and Didi of Waiting for Godot (coincidentally on stage uptown starring another intriguing pairing of performers), Patinkin and Mac keep each other company, entertaining one another by recounting the history of humankind to “chronicle the rise and fall and hopeful rise again of humankind, through music.“  (Ironically, the CSC illustration for the show depicts Patinkin and Mac in bowler hats, making them look like some portrayals of Estragon and Vladimir in Godot, including the current Broadway version.  The illustration also brings to mind René Magritte’s surrealistic paintings The Son of Man and Man in the Bowler Hat.)

As for the performance itself—well, who’da thought Mandy Patinkin, whom Jesse Green calls a “shvitzy warbler” in New York magazine, could be a clown?  Okay, he’s not Bill Irwin or David Shiner, but he does mime and sight gags in baggy pants—his are “dad” jeans, but what the hey!—and a bowler hat and carries—wields is perhaps a better word—a cane!  Who knew?  I don’t know Mac’s work at all except by rep, but I gather this is right in his wheelhouse.  Hell, from the evidence of this brief encounter, I’d guess not much isn’t in Mac’s wheelhouse!  If I had to characterize this pairing, I’d say, in a very loose sense, that Mac (an “adorable genderkind”) is a postmodern Stan Laurel (he even vaguely resembles Laurel) and Patinkin is a sort of grumpy, stern Oliver Hardy.  (Well, they are in a fine mess, though Mac didn’t get them into it.)  I still don’t think clowning comes naturally to Patinkin—this is a character he’s playing, and it’s still a little studied and controlled—but Mac is a natural buffoon.  Neither his body nor his face are as rubbery as either Irwin’s or Shiner’s, possibly the best clown-mimes working this side of the Atlantic today (I saw them in Old Hats last spring and reported on the performance on ROT on 22 March), but he’s immensely flexible nonetheless, and apparently endlessly inventive and imaginative.  The program doesn’t say who came up with the idea for Last Two People, but I suspect that Mac contributed most of the gags that punctuate the narrative the songs and dances lay out.  (My guess: Patinkin and Ford, who’ve collaborated a number of times, together came up with the song selections.) 

The teaming of Patinkin and Mac, of which New York’s Jesse Green says “an unlikelier duo” is “hard to imagine,” is not only surprising, it’s not a natural fit, either.  Mac’s organically goofy and silly—his face is changeable depending on things like where he’s facing and what he’s wearing on his head.  Patinkin’s a classically-trained actor-singer (he went to Juilliard), not an improvisational performer (from what I can tell), and being loose and unfettered doesn’t seem to come instinctively to him.  While Mac is comfortable in his role in Last Two People, enticing Patinkin to stay when he threatens to leave after a disagreement or devising ways to feed themselves or pass the time, Patinkin is more studied, rehearsed, and planned out.  This was the opening performance—there were no scheduled previews—so I presume Patinkin will loosen up some as the work progresses before an audience, but Mac’s already there.  It’s a small distinction, perhaps, but it makes the match-up uneven in some performative aspects and unbalances the production, as if the two singers were in different shows with the same script.  Again, this may be the consequence of the first night plus two actors with different kinds of backgrounds and it will even out subsequently.  (Then again, maybe it won’t, either.)

The physical production holds some little pleasures and even a couple of surprises.  William Ivey Long’s costumes, since there’s only one for each performer, are the easiest to handle.  Mac is dressed as a traditional vaudeville clown: baggy pants, threadbare cut-away, bowler—all in black.  He also carries a cane and has various props (including a full dinner setting plus three apples) stashed in his pants or in his coat pockets.  He also wears a vest, but it’s not a once-elegant black one, it’s an olive-drab, canvas commando’s vest.  (He is a survivor, after all, of a global flood and washed up on the stage—we never learn where the two are: it’s up to our imaginations—in an orange inflatable boat, like some kind of clown-universe SEAL.)  Patinkin, beardless here in contrast with the hirsute Saul Berenson on Homeland, wears work clothes: the baggy jeans I mentioned, flannel shirt, kerchief  (or bandage) tied around his forehead.  Mac provides the bowler and cane from the rubber boat (which somehow also holds a host of other useful items like two bentwood chairs and an inflatable, life-sized naked female doll).  Like Didi and Gogo, they are Nobodies and Everymen at the same time. 

Beowulf Boritt’s scenery is also simple but highly effective.  It’s been a long time since I saw a show with a front drape, but upon entering the Abrons auditorium, a traditional proscenium house of the early 20th century, we’re confronted with a curtain, painted to depict an apparently endless, dark blue body of water with what looks an immense, gray cliff beyond.  Two empty, round spotlights are side by side rising from the stage level in the center.  When the main drape rises, the stage set is revealed: a decaying, free-standing proscenium arch (the theater’s actual stage doesn’t have an arch), circa 1910-ish, blue with gold maple leaves or medallions; there’s a huge steamer trunk up center left.  The lighting by Ken Billington and sound design by Daniel J. Gerhard, which included piping the live music by Ford on piano, Tony Geralis on keyboard, and Paul Pizzuti on drums into the house from behind the scenery, helped establish the apocalyptically vaudevillian atmosphere physicalized by Boritt’s set.  There were also some wonderfully low-tech special effects, which I presume were developed by technical supervisor Aurora Productions.  After Mac flings the inflatable lady off stage lest Patinkin see it, it comes sailing back during a windstorm a few minutes later, flying across the stage above everyone’s head on an obvious harness and pulley like a tiny zip line!  (Eat your heart out, Spider-Man!)

The show starts with the sound effects of a great storm.  I don’t know how someone would interpret this without having read the promos for the performance; maybe it’s obvious to the uninitiated, but it seems ambiguous to me.  (Unlike some vaudeville-inspired shows, like the Irwin-Shiner Old Hats I mentioned, Last Two People doesn’t use title cards or captions for the scenes.)  Though I had expected two people to emerge through the curtain to stand in the light spots, that doesn’t happen and when the curtain rises, Mac is revealed arduously pulling his rubber boat on stage from the right wing.  Singing an English translation of “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” (“Yo heave ho!  Yo heave ho!”), he’s pulling from a seated position with his back to us, scooting a few feet to the center of the stage after each successful tug until he manages to get the boat on to the platform.  Then he unloads the accouterments for a picnic, taking the dinnerware out of his pants and setting them all carefully on a table cloth he’s spread out next to the large trunk.  When he pulls an apple out of his pocket, shines it up, and places it next to him, right by the trunk, a hand snakes out surreptitiously and snatches the fruit.  Finding it mysteriously missing, Mac takes out a second apple and repeats is action, only to lose it again the same way.  The third time Mac repeats this business, he watches the apple and grabs the hand and Patinkin emerges from the trunk, to the great shock of Mac that there’s another survivor of the flood. 

We know from publicity that the two don’t understand each other (though there’s no dialogue, so we have to take on faith that this is so), until one of them starts to sing and the other picks up the song and they realize that this is how they can communicate.  This leads to a rendition of Thomas Haynes Bayly’s 1833 composition “Long Long Ago,” a song about love.  The rest of the story unfolds through song and some dance and pantomime, as the two last people on Earth go through friendship, conflict, near breakup, and reconciliation. 

The score covers songs from the 19th to the 21st century, from traditional tunes to show music to pop and rock numbers, including comic pieces and serious and even melancholy ones, but the styles are all mixed and no thought seems to have been given to matching or blending them.  That’s not actually a fault, but I did wish that so many of the songs weren’t so familiar, especially the show tunes.  Songs that well known, at least for me, arrive pre-stocked with a lot of context and Patinkin and Mac don’t necessarily intend for that meaning to carry over into Last Two People.  Rogers and Hammerstein’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” (South Pacific, 1949), for instance, is given an ironic and mocking rendition which fights with the straightforward, sincere plea against bigotry that I know from the musical.  Sometimes, of course, the familiarity helps in this new setting, as with the closing number, the children’s camp round “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”  In the end, though, this is a small quibble.

Now, right at the outset, the narrative of Last Two People gets a little sticky if you don’t take it on a metaphorical level.  The premise of the vaudeville is that the arc of Patinkin and Mac’s developing relationship relates the story of humanity and, potentially, its revival.  The songs are often about love and one early number is E. Y. Harburg and Burton Lane’s “The Begat” (from 1947’s Finian’s Rainbow), which is about . . . well, procreation (“Sometimes a bachelor, he begat”).  Ummm, how does that happen with two guys?  (Parthenogenesis, anyone?)  Before I got to the show, I wondered if Mac would be doing one of his drag roles (as he did in the Public’s Good Person, in which he played Shen Tei, the title character—as well as her male alter ego, Shui Ta, roles usually played by a woman), but he doesn’t.  (I recently saw an e-card with the text, “I'm not saying you’re not my type, I'm just saying if you and I were the last two people on Earth the human race would die out,” but that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here.)  The characters Mac and Patinkin are playing don’t seem androgynous or genderless, and maybe I’m being too literal once again—but when they sing about love and, let’s face it, sex—a late song is “Real Live Girl” by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh from Little Me in 1962—well . . .”I’m so confyoooosed!” as Vinnie Barbarino used to say. 

All told, for 65 minutes, even on a miserable evening on the New York streets, The Last Two People On Earth is an entertaining, intriguing, and provocative piece of theater.  The theme is a little daunting if taken seriously, but the form is unusual and engaging and seeing Mandy Patinkin in an uncharacteristic role and getting the chance to see Taylor Mac for the first time was more than worth the price of the ticket.  There’s some opinion, it seems, that Last Two People has intentions of being more than an off-beat cabaret comprising a peculiarly eclectic selection of songs accompanied by rudimentary vaudeville dances like the cakewalk.  There may be plans for a more performance-art style presentation with more physical acting, something more postmodern, which could account for the missing 35 minutes.  I have no idea if this is correct, or where it comes from (I saw it in cyberspace, and we know how accurate that is), and I can’t evaluate what isn’t there, of course.  But it’s thought-provoking.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens next with Last Two People and how it ends up when the team’s finished workshopping it and they decide it’s ready for prime time.  I’ve only seen one report about that future and that only said that Mac and Patinkin plan to tour the show to theaters around the U.S. before returning to New York for an Off-Broadway run in 2014.  My guess about an ART visit is just that: a guess, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

[At the time I composed this report, no reviews of The Last Two People On Earth had appeared, either in print or on line, and that may be because the performance is billed as a workshop, so there won’t be any coverage.  That makes it difficult to do my customary survey of published notices, so readers of ROT will just have to go with my assessment and see what else they can find on their own.]

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