A CurtainUp Review
Two Unrelated plays by David Mamet: School & Keep Your Pantheon
By Elyse Sommer
With a less distinguished by-line, Room, might be an entry in one of those ten-minute play evenings that occasionally pop up in off and off-off-Broadway theaters. This two-hander is basically a verbal ping-pong match between a pair of staffers in a nameless school. As the school is nameless so they are known only as "A" (John Pankow) and " B " (Rod McLachlan). Their Mametian discourse about the pros and cons of a school poster project sets off a barrage of detours into issues such as recycling to the transmission of information. Pankow and McLachlan expertly handle the volley of shifting topics for maximum laughs. If you spend some time thinking about it, you may actually discern some deeper meaning beneath the verbiage. But why not just sit back and watch the prop movers switch that desk and two chairs into something elaborate enough to fit the proscenium framing the stage.
Keep Your Pantheon, the main dish on this grazing menu, was originally paired with another Mamet one-act, Duck Variations, when it premiered last year in Los Angeles. While it has a plot, a big cast (11 actors, rather than the curtain raiser's 2) and a handsome set and costumes, this backstage farce bears more resemblance to the comic skits Johnny Carson used to do on late night TV than Mamet's more substantial, award winning plays like Glengarry, Glen Ross and American Buffalo. Still, with the always outstanding Brian Murray to play Strabo, the head honcho of the down on its luck acting troupe in ancient Rome, there are laughs to be had along with glimpses of the playwright's penchant for male power plays and coarse comedy taking absurdist turns.
The plot, such as it is, finds Murray, as the untalented and unemployed Strabo, his sidekick Pelargon (the excellent John Pankow) and the well-built young intern Philius (Michael Cassidy, holding his own as the comely naif who is the object of Strabo's desires), about to be rescued from poverty by an unexpected offer to auditon for the richest man in Rome in order to perform at the Sicilian Cork Festival. But Strabo, true to past stumbles, turns opportunity into a series of mishaps that begin when his troupe lands in the house of their potential employer's arch enemy, Lupus Albus (Atlantic's always reliable regular, Jordan Lage). And so Strabo's studio turns into a dungeon (a nice bit of magic by scenic designer Takeshi Kata), and the actors are shackled and condemned to death.
The cast overall, and Murray in particular, manage to milk this familiar old theatrical cow, the backstage comedy, for maximum laughs, with a pure Mamet closing punch line. But the cast and excellent production values notwithstanding, I would be more apt to recommend this highly if it were priced so that we could tag it with one of our bargain-flagging piggy bank icons.
For more about David Mamet and links to his plays reviewed at Curtainup see the Mamet Backgrounder that's part of our Author's Album series.