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A CurtainUp Review
Sexual Perversity in Chicago and The Duck Variations
By Les Gutman
I don't know. So what?
---George, in Duck Variations
You are trying to understand women and I am confusing you with information.
---Deborah, in Sexual Perversity in Chicago
The man who has been called the testosterone playwright never assays his subject more expansively than when (as was originally the case and as is again the formulation here) these two one act plays are performed in tandem. Both take place in the "Big City on a Lake," and both begin and end with two men, sitting next to each other, being men. Danny (Josh Hamilton) and Bernie (Clark Gregg), the pair in Sexual Perversity, are at or near their sexual prime. It's the early seventies, and Mamet's uncannily keen way with the way we talk is also at its prime.
Whether at work or play, the topic du jour in Perversity is women. Duck Variation's Emil (John Tormey) and George (Peter Maloney), who could be the grandfathers of the other pair, are doing good to be interested in the mating habits of the ducks that consume their attention.
As the titles suggest, Duck Variations is as vanilla as Sexual Perversity is raunchy. During the intermission, as the simple set of Duck Variations (a park bench and a wire trash can) was transformed into the complex but effective multi-level setting for Sexual Perversity, I couldn't help but eavesdrop on the two "upper middle age" couples sitting behind me. For the life of them, the husbands couldn't understand what Variations was about -- "two old men sitting on a bench saying nothing we need to hear for forty-five minutes." The wives nervously wondered why Duck Variations, the less significant of the two plays, had been presented first. Paging Mr. Mamet -- there's yet another play going unwritten in row G.
The conventional wisdom, of course, is that Sexual Perversity, which misses no chance to broaden our awareness of dirty words, not to mention kink and misogyny, is the more controversial. Don't believe it: we've heard all that stuff before; it's the curtain-raiser that sets up this evening's bite. And sticking those incisors in us up-front -- letting us see that park bench where Danny and Bernie are going to end up a half century from now -- that's a mighty clever trick.
Emil and George do indeed talk about nothing, and in doing so tell us just about everything. Tormey and Maloney, both seasoned actors in firm grasp of this deceptively difficult material, make it a pleasure. Maloney suggests more with his eyes than many actors are able to convey with their entire bodies; Tormey renders life-summing observations with mature austerity. Duck may seem like Mamet Lite, but it reveals all of the strengths that are found in its noisier successors.
In Perversity, Mamet gives us glimpses of the real world that rests behind all the guy talk. There are even real girls. In conversation, Bernie is the mentor, Danny his wide-eyed student:
Danny:So how'd you do last night?
Bernard: Are you kidding me?
Bernard: Are you fucking kidding me?
In conversation, the excitement is Bernie's. His tale about the girl into "combat sex" is a classic. But in execution, it's Danny who gets lucky. He meets Deborah (Kate Blumberg), and she even moves in, briefly. Nothing Bernie taught him prepares Danny for crossing the bridge from "I love making love with you" to "I love you." Deborah's skeptical schoolteacher roommate and friend, Joan (Kristin Reddick), had men about right.
Hilary Hinckle directs Perversity with punch and precision, the actors popping up and down stairs from scene to scene at sometimes breakneck, cinematic speed. (By contrast, she had properly left Duck a restrained meditation.) At times, as when Bernie speaks disparagingly of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment, for those who have forgotten or never knew), it seems a period piece. But the message transcends that, and the production succeeds in not getting bogged down in its ambiance.
Hamilton (who alone is able to evoke something approaching midwestern-ness) and Blumberg are fine. Both find themselves a bit overcautiously in latter-day formation, still as influenced by the words of their friends as by their own instincts. Hamilton has a naive but volatile charm that plays well into the Deborah that Blumberg makes more self-assured than poignant. Gregg takes the show's most exaggerated character close enough to the edge to keep him both interesting and unlovable, while Reddick's Joan lingers as more harsh than bitter.
By the time Atlantic Theater completes its season-long homage to its co-founder (American Buffalo is next), the wisdom of its journey should make the importance of these two station stops evident.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF PLAYS MENTIONED ABOVE
Our review of The Water Engine (and "Mr. Happiness")