If you pitched me a musical theater revue in the end times that weaves obscure show tunes with original music, I'd spit my burnt coffee in your face. But we're talking about you, not Taylor Mac and Mandy Patinkin. Those two could spill a jar of toothpicks and spend two hours picking it up and leave audiences mesmerized. They can also spit out the lyrics to R.E.M's "End of the World" halfway through 90 minutes of non-stop song and dance with speed, clarity and panache. Then, 10 minutes later mash-up Gillian Welch's relatively unknown "My Morphine" with "Quiet Please, There's a Lady on Stage" from The Boy From Oz and turn it into a meaningful, rousing number.
These men are veritable institutions of the contemporary theater and it's a real treat to see them onstage in their latest project, The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville, which plays at the Eisemann Center through Sunday.
The show, which will have its world premiere in May at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass, is a few years in the making for Patinkin, Mac and their director/choreographer Susan Stroman, whose stage bio is even larger than her two stars. And in its final state, The Last Two People is a variegated journey through musical theater with irresistible showmanship. While tapping brilliantly into the theatrical, vaudevillian conceits, it also proves revelatory in an absurdist tale of friendship that has more in common with Beckett than Chaplin. It's old school in charm, and contemporary in its atemporality. After all, nothing is more 2015 than to revisit yesteryear with a touch of the apocalyptic.
The show's simplistic narrative goes something like this: Taylor Mac washes up in his lifeboat on an abandoned beach thinking he's the last man alive. There, he finds Mandy Patinkin and the only way they can communicate is through song and dance, which they discover quite quickly. Patinkin is a bit less civilized; Mac makes him shave, and hands him a bowler cap and cane for their newly formed duo.
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The songs they pick follow an interesting arc, as Mac seems to be civilizing Patinkin (think Caliban, from Shakespeare's Tempest). They sing "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," a song from South Pacific, which out of context is one of musical theater's most racist song (actual lyrics: You've got to be taught to be afraid/ Of people whose eyes are oddly made). Eventually, the songs take an eerily patriotic turn with "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" and Sondheim's "Another National Anthem" from Assassins (lyrics: There's another national anthem, folks, For those who never win). Below the surface of this wonderfully entertaining show, there's a narrative of community building leading to assimilation, distorted nationalism and eventually solitude. The Last Two People chips away at accepted mainstream narratives, leaving its audiences with the lyrics to Paul Simon's "American Tune": We come in the age's most uncertain hour/ and sing an American tune/ But it's all right, it's all right/ You can't be forever blessed." Followed by the show's final lines "Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.... life is but a dream."
And because these two are theater pros, unlikely to create a show without a point, what it seems they're pointing out is that everyday we should be very aware that we're creating what we'll leave in the world when we're gone. And someday the curtain will go down on everyone. If it surprises you that a vaudevillian musical theater revue would leave this reviewer with so much to think about, then you definitely weren't sitting next me when I was a college student in the audience of The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac at the Undermain Theatre six years ago. Mac was one of the first performers to open up a world of theater that wasn't about comfortable narratives and humorous plots -- a world seen far too rarely on Dallas stages.
Now, I'm not quite old enough to have seen Mandy Patinkin christen the Eisemann Center with Patti LuPone in 2002 (yeah, I'm rubbing that in your face, oldie), but it's safe to say between the two of them they have a history with Dallas. Not to mention the fact that Beowulf Boritt, their Tony award-winning set designer is no stranger to the Dallas Theater Center either.
Look, I have no further words to urge you to see this show. Let's revisit: Dallas connections, a searing American narrative, beautiful music, incredible vocals, two of the best performers in contemporary theater directed by the goddess of choreography, all just 15 minutes from downtown. See it through Sunday. Tickets and more information at eisemanncenter.com.