Who doesn’t love the post-apocalyptic landscape? In fiction, of course.
Perhaps you’ve had your brain rattled in the cinema recently during “Mad Max: Fury Road,” where there was two hours of mayhem, an onslaught of death, blood and horror. A wild ride through a bleak wasteland.
The American Repertory Theatre is offering a gentler, albeit lonelier, ride through the end of days at the Loeb Drama Center with the 80-minute, one-act musical “The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville.”
It’s certainly truth in titling: Those last two people are Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac, playing (un-named) middle-aged men washed up on an island – or maybe it’s the flooded Mojave Desert – after planet earth has taken a pretty good drenching. (Cause: Unknown. Suspected: Human folly/arrogance.) They are bound by fate. Mac arrives on a raft; Patinkin is sequestered in a large trunk and doesn’t particularly want visitors. Mac knocks and from the trunk we hear a bit of the old R&B standard, “I hear you knockin’ but you can’t come in.” Of course, Patinkin relents and their relationship begins.
Though they seem to be contrasting personalities, these are vaudevillians, complete with canes and bowler hats. (Well, the jollier Mac brings those and bestows a set to the crustier Patinkin. He doesn’t resist the old-school props.) They are determined to make tragic-comic sense of their situation by tripping through a skewed slice of the 20th century American (and British) songbook.
Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t It a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain” opens the show and Paul Simon’s “American Tune” closes it – with a poignant (really!) “Row Row Row Your Boat” added on. If you’re thinking, “I bet Randy Newman and Tom Waits show up somewhere,” well, you’re right. Are there more acute, acerbic observers of the human condition?
No one’s got time for dialogue. What needs to be expressed – angst, pain, humor, politics, bonding – can all be done via singing and our dynamic duo is bolstered by an ace off-stage trio, anchored by pianist-musical director-arranger Paul Ford. (Keyboardist Grant Sturiale and drummer James Mack flesh it out.) Ford also co-conceived the show, along with Patinkin, Mac and director Susan Stroman. (It work-shopped in New York and opened in Richardson, Texas, before coming to the A.R.T.)
You may know Patinkin from his terse TV roles on “Homeland” and, earlier, “Criminal Minds,” but he’s a longtime Broadway song-and-dance guy, a Tony-winner with impeccable pedigree (“Evita,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “The Wild Party”). Mac is a veteran playwright, performance artist and drag queen.
“The Last Two People” has one of the simplest stage sets in A.R.T. history. All the action, as it were, takes place under a lit arch, with the floor being desert or water, as the scene demands. There’s the raft, from which, magically, various objects emerge – a checkered tablecloth, fish bones, a plastic female blow-up doll, some red holiday caps and baker’s hats.
Thirty songs (in part or in whole) unfold over the course of the play, including, early on, the opening bit of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (“Is this the real life?/Or is this just fantasy?”) As the show develops the two bickering men become closer, physically entwined during a madcap dance through R.E.M.’s helter-skelter “It’s The End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”
While the songs tend to concern the castaways predicament, there are some reaches back into the world as it existed before the catastrophe – perhaps even what contributed to this catastrophe. In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” they sing how you have taught how to hate at a young age. And there’s Sondheim’s “Another National Anthem,” where they sing, “There’s another national anthem, folks/For those who never win/For the suckers, for the pikers/For the ones who might have been.”
Mac himself wrote “Fear,” where he starts with FDR’s famous line about “having nothing to fear but fear itself” before shifting course, singing “I’m afraid of fear.” And then a few of his favorite fearful things in the world pre-apocalypse: religion, patriotism, jingoism and nationalism, among them.
The show-stopper has to be their over-the-top duet of the Pogues’ classic “Fairytale of New York,” with both actors inhabiting the roles of original singers Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl. Snow falls and they drown sorrows via a flask that Mac has magically procured. Following that, Patinkin sings a twisted “12 Days of Christmas” (11 of the gifts are all varieties of liquor) and Mac, who’s imbibed too heartily, pays the price and follows with a rather long retch into his red hat.
There’s a duality coursing through the show, as the songs embrace both melancholy and jauntiness. Sometimes the two are wrapped around each other in the same song. And the characters themselves evolve and merge as the play unfolds. Maybe, they’re not so dissimilar after all. This isn’t Mad Max’s world here. For these guys, R.E.M. was right – they feel fine. Sorta. I mean as fine as you can be being the last men on a desolate earth.
Tickets: Start at $25
Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617-547-8300 ttp://americanrepertorytheater.org/
Show runs May 19-23, and 26-30 at 7:30PM and May 17, 20, 23, 24, 27, 30, 31 at 2:00PM