I’m afraid I made a spectacle of myself at Ghost and Spice Productions’ opening of The Duck Variations and Sexual Perversity in Chicago. I think it must have been years since I laughed so much in such a short time, and the final scenes of the latter play had me rocking helplessly in my seat. Under the direction of Rus Hames, both of these short works by David Mamet are extremely humorous: bitingly, grotesquely, sadly, endearingly, empathetically, smartly funny.
Tired of frenetic plotlines? Pull up a chair, for here there’s a lot more talk and a lot less action. These short bouts of philosophical musing and social observation are ideal for a barebones production by a sizzling troupe of intelligent actors, and the Common Ground Theatre is excellent for its presentation. I took a friend who’d not been there before, and she was skeptical at first. CGT is small, plain, and functional — no gloss — and you have to take in a cushion to pad your hard chair. But, as my friend noted wonderingly, there’s nothing between you and the acting. Some productions there are more dressed up than others, with well-developed sets; but the show is practically in your lap every time. It’s a place that encourages nuanced expressivity in the actors, which makes it very good for talky plays; and its intimate size seems to make it a safe space to bring out difficult topics.
Like ducks, and death. Like friendship, and death. Like pollution (gook in the stratosphere!), and death. It sounds grim, but it’s not at all. We should all be so lucky as to have a fellow traveler with whom to sit on a park bench and talk about these things when we are old.
Well known for their decades of acting work in the Triangle, David Ring as Emil and Jordan Smith as George are perfectly wonderful in The Duck Variations. It is a real treat to see these two actors with the crags of time and accrued wisdom on their faces, working together so artfully that we can forget they are working. Ring and Jordan evaporate: Emil and George solidify before us. It’s circling conversation they have — two old men on a park bench, present, not waiting for Godot, or anything else. They look out at the lake, talking it all over. They remark, they remember, they forget. They mis-hear; they confuse each other. They argue and apologize — but they never get off the bench. They are here, in no hurry, so we have the luxury of time to think about what they’ve said, and let the big ideas come round in all their leisurely finality. The conversation takes on added poignancy from the gentle, unobtrusive sound design by G. Todd Buker; and it is given some punctuation by Seth Blum’s voice-over announcements of each “variation” while the lights are down between these sections of conversation. It was a bit shocking when the lights went up and men morphed back into actors. I’d been thinking I’d go back and eavesdrop on those guys again.
Although Sexual Perversity in Chicago does have a little more of a storyline, it is still a series of conversations strung together. These are not conversations you would ever hear on television. The FCC would have a collective stroke at Mamet’s language, which is purposefully coarse and even raunchy at times. If this kind of language bothers you, you would not find the play as hilarious as I do; and I find that the crudity often reveals the pathos of the characters’ lives as they struggle for sex and love and companionship.
Sexual Perversity has a knockout cast, led by Carl Martin, with his mountainous presence and booming voice, as Bernie. His foil is Danny, played by the finely built Jeffrey Scott Detwiler, who can’t be more than half Martin’s size. Bernie’s the kind of lout you don’t want to sit down at your bar table; Danny’s the guy you really don’t want to fall for, because he’s sweet and affectionate and chicken. They talk about women all the time, but Bernie and Danny are the real couple: together they can remain safe from the terrors of intimacy. They are mirrored by Joan, played by the always-powerful Rachel Klem (stunning in crisp black and white), and Deborah, played by Tracy Coppedge, who holds her own beautifully next to Klem’s banked intensity. All four go flat-out with reckless honesty and great comic timing, making you forget all about your hard chair.
The play is 30+ years old, and some of the comments do seem dated, but what’s more striking is the general currency of its ideas about the eternal struggle between men and women. Sad though any one such struggle may be, overall it is ludicrous; and Mamet — never vicious — exposes its absurdity and ratchets it up with his ribaldries. Go ahead, laugh your f****** a** off.
Ghost & Spice Productions presents The Duck Variations and Sexual Perversity in ChicagoThursday-Saturday, April 10-12 and 17-19, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 13, at 2 p.m. at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $14 ($12 students and seniors), except all tickets half-price on Thursdays. (888) 239-9253, firstname.lastname@example.org, or via etix through the presenter's website. Ghost & Spice Productions: http://www.ghostandspice.com/. Common Ground Theatre: http://www.cgtheatre.com/. David Mamet: http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=5000 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000519/ (Internet Movie Database). Sexual Perversity in Chicago and The Duck Variations: http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database).