Keep Your Pantheon and School
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 3, 2009
Really, the only thing important I have to say about the new double bill of David Mamet pieces at the Atlantic Theater Company is that it's very short and that in no way does it represent the best work of this oft-produced playwright. The total running time is just a shade more than an hour, which to me does not a full evening (or afternoon) of theatre make: these "Two Unrelated Plays" are at most an aperitif, suitable as the start to some longer, more fulfilling, more nourishing program of culture/art. Offered up as the entire meal, they feel meager, and not just because they're brief.
School, the curtain raiser, lasts no longer than ten minutes. It's a sketch, not a play; the reviewer at the New York Times compares it to an Abbott & Costello routine and certainly in terms of overall literary content he's right on target. It's a dialogue between two characters in an office in a school that starts out being about the wisdom of writing slogans about recycling paper on recycled paper and ends up taking up such disparate random topics as the bombing of Dresden and latent pedophilia. It's well-executed by John Pankow and Rod McLachlan, and it's wry and even funny in places, but it's finally completely empty of purpose save to remind us of the rhythms and ironies that made Mamet famous; it feels like parody.
Keep Your Pantheon, which follows, spans some 50 minutes or so, several of which are taken up by set changes (the overly elaborate scenic design, which is becoming a trademark of Atlantic productions, is by Takeshi Kata;/). The play takes place in Rome during the time of the Caesars and concerns a has-been actor who is scheming to: (1) maintain the interest of the hunky young man who has been apprenticed to him, (2) not get evicted from his lodgings, and—after many mechanical plot devisings—(3) not get executed by a military unit that has returned to Rome from Africa in disgrace. The jokes come quickly but a good many of them fall flat. Many of them are lewd rather than witty.
I couldn't find a point to the thing other than to give Brian Murray (as the actor) and John Pankow (as his colleague, another actor) some stage time. Both are fun to watch on stage, but director Neil Pepe hasn't seemed to provide much in the way of style or perspective to frame the piece, so they generally appear to be doing what they want to—the hamminess may be masterful, but it's ham all the same.
I found my mind wandering, due to the play's utter lack of substance: for example, I wondered why the period costumes did not include convincingly Roman sandals (Murray and Pankow wear shoes that I might buy for summer wear at DSW), and I wondered why Mamet had his characters refer to the Greek god Zeus rather than the Roman god Jupiter.
Were I a paying customer or Atlantic subscriber I would feel cheated by the brevity and inconsequentiality of this pairing. But as I left the theatre, a gentleman remarked to his companion that he thought the play was very funny indeed, despite what the reviews he'd read had warned.