Richardson — Everyone knows the first two people on earth, but what about the last two?
And, in that bookend to Eden, how will humanity go out?
Well, according to The Last Two People On Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville, with a little song, a little dance…a little seltzer down the pants.
Actually, that’s one of the few things not found in the voluminous pantaloons of one of the two Beckettian clowns who communicate through songs, familiar and not, in this sort of déjà vu requiem/summing up of society.
To avoid burying the lead any further, five-time Tony Award-winner Susan Stroman directs and choreographs Tony/Emmy/movie man Mandy Patinkin and performance genius Taylor Mac, with the music direction from Broadway veteran Paul Ford. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime world premiere (though workshopped before) at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts.
All this begs the question: can any show live up to these four creators’ collective accolades?
Short answer: yes.
Ignoring the pedigree is hard, admittedly. Having been raised on the Evita cast album, Mandy Patinkin is, for me, an otherworldly icon (to say nothing of The Princess Bride). And after The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac, the spellbinding solo show hosted by Undermain theatre five years ago, Mac generates his own share of devoted awe.
That being said the proof is in the production.
Under designer Beowulf Boritt’s storm-ravaged vaudeville proscenium set, Mac, a clownish survivor of the world-ending flood, lands his inflatable raft. Throwing his floppy anchor off the footlight festooned stage, he plants his toilet plunger flag with a relieved air of one who has survived the end of the world. Sound designer Daniel J. Gerhard and lighting designer Ken Billington work together to create an apocalyptical storm that is clown-compatible. The button on the bit is a little musical rhapsody from Queen.
Even had the show stayed this silly, it would have been satisfying. One patron kept up a running series of gasps and giggles like a kid at the best birthday party ever. This is not just a testament to the performers’ prowess. Stroman’s direction packages its bits, and frames its choreography so tidily that the show seems like a series of preciously wrapped presents, each more impossibly thoughtful and tasteful than the last.
Patinkin, found in a trunk on the beach by Mac, plays an older, more shell-shocked survivor. As Mac’s character endeavors to engage him through song, grander tones emerge as the evening becomes about grief, caretaking, and connection in the wake of humanity’s extinction. What could have been a showoff showcase of two tremendously talented performers becomes a wide-ranging examination of humanity. How we love, hate, long for, and lose one another. And in the end, hopefully, find them again.
Though the songs’ origins range from the obscure, like Vinicius de Moraes, to the familiar like Rodgers and Hammerstein, to the popular like R.E.M., the most successful moments come when the recognition of the tune floats further from easy grasp. The time it takes to place the number allows the scenario to gain deeper resonances in the audience.
Patty Griffin’s moving “Making Pies,” for instance, becomes an elegy for labor, how life seems a side eddy to the inevitable tides of punching the minimum wage clock. Stroman keeps the choreography devastatingly simple, allowing the words to paint a picture many in the audience can identify with all too well. Patinkin and Mac work together to clear out as much aural canvas as possible. Their voices on the lilting end of the chorus delicately blend in almost aromatic twists and turns.
This is not to suggest that every song is sodden with meanings hidden in subtle folds. Mac rings out a rollicking rendition of the old Eddie Lawrence classic “The Old Philosopher.” And there is nothing subtle about Mr. Patinkin’s vitriolic attack on “Have A Nice Day.” Both are powerful examples of performers in their own wheelhouse, but the moments together with voices carefully blended are what make this billing priceless.
Imagine for a moment Paul Simon’s “American Tune” played through those throats and you’ll understand why there has rarely been a more eager standing ovation.
At the end of the end, when all is sung and done, despite losing the world, the clowns have found each other. Things haven’t changed much since Hamlet. Only the question becomes “two be or not to be.”
Or to borrow the show’s borrowing tone: And in the end, the love we take is equal to the love we make.
If you read that in the Beatles’ melody, this is the show for you.
» Read our interview with Taylor Mac here