I have often wondered why I liked the first two Mamet plays seen hereabouts so well and the later ones so little. Now that Sexual Perversity in Chicago and The Duck Variations are with us again, though not in the same order, I think I know why. All that is original and good in Mamet is encapsulated in those plays, which were news then. The rest of Mamet is the same thing rehashed over and over, and no longer news.
To some extent every creator remains himself. We can find some Shakespeare even in Titus Andronicus, some Mozart even in Mitridate. But there’s scant Titus in Lear, and little Mitridate in Don Giovanni. In Mamet’s late plays there is nothing these early ones don’t do as well or better, and if, like the author of Rent, Mamet had met an untimely death, they would have lived on as a powerful promise tragically unfulfilled.
Perversity deals with two young Chicago men who work in the same office and two young women – one teaching small children, one in commercial art – who live together. Bernard, the older guy, is a big womanizer; Danny, the younger, aspires to that status. Deborah, the artist, gets involved with Danny; Joan, the teacher (who may be a closet lesbian), resists Bernard’s crude advances. Deborah moves in with Danny and, after some fights, back in with Joan. Otherwise nothing happens, but there are words, streams of those Mametian words.
The men talk about women vauntingly, wantingly, fantasizingly, superiorly, and, above all, grossly. The women talk about men, though less obsessively and crassly. All scenes are essentially self-contained vignettes, sometimes very short, that end on a goofy punch line, an ambiguity, or a non sequitur leaving an aftertaste of puzzlement, a sense of the everyday absurd. And no one learns or changes.
In The Duck Variations, two retired geezers sit on a lakeside bench and talk. We know nothing about them except their part-commonplace, part-nonsensical chatter shuttling between the dreariest platitudes and ludicrous misinformation. Much of it is about the ducks they are watching, much about life as they understand it, and about both they are mostly wrong. But it is also, in a sad way, funny. It is not far-fetched to assume that this Emil and George are really Bernard and Danny grown old, which is why I would have preferred Variations to follow Perversity.
Both plays are about the broken dialogue between people, the hollow inarticulateness that pseudo-savvy verbiage tries to plaster over. They are about us, idiot savants all, and the comic-pathetic ways in which we struggle to make do. At the Atlantic Theater Company, they are decently but not brilliantly produced, and Variations is delivered at too fast a pace for the full absurdity to sink in.