When you've been crowned the heavyweight playwriting champion of trash-talking masculinity, it can be hard to get anyone to acknowledge that you're good for more than just verbal uppercuts. David Mamet's talent has always been more diverse than his reputation. No, there definitely isn't an old softy waiting to emerge from behind the brawler's facade. But what about a bespectacled metaphysician with an absurdist streak or a vaudevillian cutup who could still probably make a killing in late-night sketch comedy?
These two lesser-known sides are on jaunty display in "Two Unrelated Plays by David Mamet," a bill featuring his 1971 two-hander "The Duck Variations" and his zany recent lampoon "Keep Your Pantheon" that opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Expertly directed by Neil Pepe, these works -- minor-scale, though no less enjoyable for being so -- showcase what is perhaps Mamet's most underrated gift: his Houdini-like ability to slip out of pigeonholes.
"The Duck Variations," a play about seniors and death, is often paired with "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," a play about young adults and sex. But "The Duck Variations" is its own entity. Written as a series of "movements" on everyday existential themes, the drama ultimately pertains more to humans even though fowl figure prominently.
A couple of nicely attired elderly gentleman, Emil Varec (Harold Gould) and George S. Aronovitz (Michael Lerner), chatty public acquaintances, engage in a series of conversations on a park bench overlooking a lake. (The tastefully sketched set design by Takeshi Kata supplies just what's required to situate us.) The two make small talk, comment on what's going on in the world, pose scientific and philosophical questions, occasionally moralize in biblical cadences and inconsequentially bicker. While probing the meaning and nature of being, they enact its Beckettian truth -- time passes, the mind reels and the mouth motors forth uncomprehendingly.
Spotting some ducks ("a sure sign of spring" -- "autumn too"), they ponder these creatures' life cycle and in the process give expression to their own thoughts about mortality's stealthy inevitability. In the absence of definitive knowledge, they tell each other stories -- an instinct every bit as native to our species, Mamet helps us see, as swimming is to the birds that capture the men's slightly mournful fancy.
Too much incidental realism can clog Mamet's dramatic pipes, yet the language can seem pallid if it's not emanating from a recognizably human source. The balance here is admirably met. We're treated to portraits that haven't been over-saturated with personal color. Lerner's George is an affable and seemingly well-to-do windbag; Gould's Emil is a shy and sensitive rationalist whose inquiries keep bumping up against the unanswerable.
Even more impressive is the way Pepe conducts the rhythms of the dialogue. "The Duck Variations" propels itself through its verbal music, and the actors don't miss a beat. The words resonate with inward feeling, but the emotion is never allowed to self-indulgently subvert this carefully syncopated score. The result is like listening to two veteran pianists fall into perfect time with each other.
Ed O'Neill -- yes, Al Bundy from "Married . . . With Children" -- is in game form in "Keep Your Pantheon," an extended and quite amusing skit that offers its star another chance to play the dissolute schemer who rarely gets what he wants yet usually gets stuck with the bill. Cast your imagination back to ancient Rome and think of Caesar -- Julius and Sid. Now that you're in the right frame of mind, picture an acting guru -- middle-aged, not in the best shape, with a penchant for pretty boys and a landlord debt that just won't go away. Strutting around in a red tunic and sandals, O'Neill -- looking like a sack of potatoes with a subtly throbbing hangover -- plays Strabo, the would-be Lee Strasberg of the classical world. Naturally, his problems are proliferating. He owes four months' rent and desperately needs a gig at the Sicilian Cork Festival, where he's been invited to audition -- for one of the fringe events.
Making matters more vexing, he's hankering to bed rosy-faced Philius (Michael Cassidy), who thinks he's disgusting but is set on becoming an actor (even though he has trouble enough with reading). And then there's Pelargon (David Paymer), an acting associate at the studio who's ever-ready to burst Strabo's bubble with a cynical pinprick of reality.
A rainy night, a wrong address and a cheesy act conspire to throw Strabo in the slammer. No point in recounting all the silliness; the fun is in watching O'Neill and Paymer -- two dab Mamet hands -- react and counter-react to the escalating madness. The shenanigans are broad, but these canny pros, decked in hilarious get-ups by Ilona Somogyi, lend a subtle expertise that measures the distance between shameless shtick and the legit stage.
Mamet has taken a screwball turn in his later years. "Romance," produced at the Mark Taper Forum in 2005, scored a slew of politically incorrect laughs while revivifying that hoariest of comic set pieces -- the kangaroo court. And currently on Broadway, "November" tries to wring fresh life out of a madcap White House farce that never lets satire stand in the way of a good guffaw.
Is the playwright coasting with "Keep Your Pantheon," a diverting bauble that some might think is beneath him (or a last-minute substitution for his postponed musical, "A Waitress in Yellowstone")? Sure, it's hard to imagine Beckett, Pinter or Albee dabbling in this way, but then Mamet, one of the undeniably great playwrights of the baby boomer generation, is a literary conglomerate all his own, a writer too street-smart to let artistic success suffocate him.
Give him a genre -- in any medium -- and he'll be more than happy to show you what he can do. From the meditative soul-searching of "The Duck Variations" to the capering nuttiness of "Keep Your Pantheon," Mamet is like a shark shooting through the ocean, his very survival dependent on moving forward.