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The Duck Variations


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Ignatz Players

at Sheffield's

Sometimes it seems as if David Mamet, with his artful meanderings and patented rhythms, has been with us forever. His mark is everywhere. It seems a long, long time ago that characters spoke in full sentences free of expletives.

And yet 18 years ago, that dialogue was an irritant. Then we weren't accustomed to his characters' stop-and-start exchanges, which sounded like a blowhard conversation you overheard on a bus whether you wanted to or not (the more scatological stuff was clearly dredged up on a late-Saturday-night ride). American Buffalo was crammed with characters you'd cross the street to avoid; their dead-end dialogue was just what they deserved and we didn't.

Today it's clear that, however stylized the talk, what's real about a Glengarry Glen Ross is just that famous ear for dialogue. Mamet's exchanges show an awesome fidelity to the visceral way a conversation can chase its tail, overlap, fade out, or double back on itself, all the time picking up a load of industrial-strength cliches, non sequiturs, calculated repetitions, mind-numbing tautologies, and strategic silences.

Like Waiting for Godot, Mamet's early work resembles an extended vaudeville sketch; his two contemplative clowns switch off the roles of comic interlocutor and straight man. First performed in 1972 by the old Saint Nicholas Theatre in the author's staging, The Duck Variations is vintage Mamet, replete with shrewd eavesdropping and hilarious pseudophilosophy. By the end of its hour, it also has a Chekhovian pathos, much like Mamet's A Life in the Theater. But this duo, instead of cherishing the stage, clumsily tries to forge a link with nature--"our window to the world"--specifically, with birds. These old men's attempts to fly--philosophically and emotionally--are Mamet at his most poignant.

This cocky tour de force consists of 14 variations on a theme of ducks (well, each variation alludes to them). They're delivered by two old men on a park bench, George S. Aronovitz and Emil Varec, who eat sandwiches, slurp coffee, read newspapers, and talk in funny fragments. (Mamet's setting is typically both precise and vague, a "big city on a lake" on an afternoon near Easter.) Opinionated George brims with half-baked misinformation, wishful thinking, and stubborn pontification; he's a big talker who needs a small listener--Emil. Where George displays the confidence of ignorance, the more poetic Emil can actually give way to astonishment: "Whenever I think of wild flying things I wonder."

Their crazy-smart talk covers some strange territory. The ducks they see remind them of both spring and fall, birth and death--and the inevitable fact that the lead duck in each formation will die "and another duck moves on up." Emil: "It's boring just to think about it." Tall-talking George regales Emil with the supposed age-old saga of the conflict between the duck and its inveterate enemy, the blue heron. And Emil opines that everything has meaning: "The very fact that you are sitting here right now on this bench has a purpose." George: "And so, by process of elimination, does the bench."

They even stumble into something like environmental awareness: George lights up a cigar, then complains about the gook that's choking up the stratosphere. "The air is more a part of our world," he says, "than we would like to admit." Emil's only slightly exaggerated picture of a damaged planet sounds bitterly current, considering Exxon's ravages: "Oil-bearing ducks floating up dead on the beaches. Beaches closing. No place to swim. The surface of the sea is solid dying wildlife."

With deft touches, Mamet suggests a reluctant friendship. When Emil proclaims the natural need for companionship, George informs him that a cactus is able to live alone quite nicely. Emil says, "I don't want to hear it. If it's false, don't waste my time and if it is true I don't want to know." In the final variation, the old men compare themselves to their counterparts in ancient Greece--"incapable of working," Emil says, "of no use to their society, who used to watch the birds all day, . . . each with something to contribute." Put in that classical context, there is something a tad glorious about George and Emil; their stumblings and mumblings create a kind of clumsy prayer for our planet.

In this Ignatz Players revival, director Duncan Stevens aims for a strong contrast between George and Emil: Mick Thomasson's pompous George (remarkably like Oliver Hardy) is still the same elderly retiree he was 18 years ago, but Jack Sullivan's Emil (a lot like Michael J. Pollard in Bonnie and Clyde) has become a street person. He sleeps under a blanket on the bench and has a grocery cart nearby full of forlorn belongings and stuff he hopes to sell. Occasional blackouts and long silences splice together their continuous, if jerky, conversation. Stevens's stage business--Emil puttering in his cart, George pulling at his scarf--seldom distracts from Mamet's wonderful wordplay.

What does distract--considerably--in this venue is the noise coming from the party animals in the adjacent poolroom and bar at Sheffield's. Alas, the actors make little effort to combat this auditory assault. Besides their fatal failure to project, they also miss most of Mamet's humor: unsteady in their lines, they don't know which ones to punch home, and end up throwing away far too many zingers. Mamet's fogies may be ordinary coots but they can't be dull. Stevens should allow his actors at least a little excitement--then they might have some fun with this hot dialogue, and we might too.


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