THE DUCK VARIATIONS: Old pros Thomas Derrah and Will LeBow pat their paunches while waxing philosophic.
If the American Repertory Theatre is renewing its vows to David Mamet, several of whose plays it premiered in the 1990s, the double bill of The Duck Variations and Sexual Perversity in Chicago (at Zero Arrow Theatre through June 28) will do nicely for something old and something blue. The two one-acts, which have been produced in tandem since the '70s, hark back to a time when Mamet was just wildly talented rather than celebrated and not a little pretentious. In The Duck Variations, two old gents parked on a park bench discuss life, death, and the watery-bedroom doings and existential angst of ducks. The vulgar and vernacular Sexual Perversity, the basis for the 1986 film About Last Night, deals more in human sex tricks. Performed as part of the ART's "Sex, Satire, Romance, and Ducks: A David Mamet Celebration," the two plays prove that Mamet was a better proto-Mamet than proto–Neil LaBute.
Not that the contest is exactly fair. The still-delightful The Duck Variations is played by old pros Thomas Derrah and Will LeBow, who pat their paunches while waxing philosophic under the direction of ART associate director Marcus Stern. The less timeless Sexual Perversity, in which LeBow and Derrah might have flexed their testosterone back closer to its debut, is played by first-year ART/MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training students helmed by fellow student Paul Stacey. When directing his own work, Mamet sometimes counsels the actors to the point of zombie-ism in the imparting of his trademark staccato rhythms. Yet the rhythms are there, and they're not sufficiently there in this Institute re-creation of Mamet's deliberately crass '70s take on romantic comedy. Derrah and LeBow, by contrast, bark and trill their Mamet-speak as if under the baton of James Levine.
Written in 1972, The Duck Variations is positively Beckettesque in its lack of action, but it's Beckett crossed with a couple of Borscht Belt philosophes in Emil and George, the pair of duffers whose on-the-Chicago-waterfront life takes the form of blackout sketches, each announced by a placard bearing its first phrase. The crankier and more emotional Emil and the dithering, curious George follow "the duck," more often preposterously than not, through birth, mating, ascendancy in the pecking order, and death, their conversation sending out little ripples that lap against the similar, not much more sensible rituals of humankind. Derrah, his mouth an upside-down parabola under heavy specs and a cap, is the gruffer duck watcher, LeBow the marginally better informed. Together they swim through waters both hilarious and profound, if nonsensically charted and alive with the flotsam of tedium alleviated by human conversation.
After intermission, we get a coupla white guys who are equally clueless, if led less by Reader's Digest and on-the-spot reflection than by the divining rods between their legs. One's member points him temporarily in the direction of love, as a one-night stand blossoms into cohabitation. But the male-bonding sway of the woman-objectifying, tall-sexual-exploit-tale-telling older buddy who has him in his thrall is abetted by the cynical if more soul-searching man-hating of his lady love's roommate, and together they prove stronger than what one of the Duck Variations guys calls "wildest captivity." By the end, it's back to the beach to catalogue a cornucopia of tits and ass unconnected to brains or commitment.
ART wisely presents Sexual Perversity as a period piece, complete with skinny ties and a Marimekko-esque comforter; yet it still seems dated. There are several colorfully painted sexual scenarios (one involving conflagration) and, between the men, a few fusillades of BB-gun Mametism. But any of LaBute's subsequent riffs on "The Dick Variations" is better.