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Two Unrelated Plays by David Mamet: “Keep Your Pantheon” and “School”

The Two Plays Are Related Indeed. Both are excercises in plotting, reversals, and brilliant word play. They share a common satiric vision too of the straight-laced world with its closed mind.

“Keep Your Pantheon” and “School”
These two plays reveal why Mamet is a master playwright. Like a dog with a bone, he keeps tugging and chewing and wrestling with his subject, in both cases seemingly quite slight subjects, but he never gives up until he has almost chewed the bone to shards so that almost nothing is left.
     The subject matter or approach couldn’t be more different, however. Yet taken together they reveal the two sides of the master. “School” is purely verbal action and interaction, with two characters, A and B, who go back and forth in ways that can really tire an audience as the words and ideas fly back and forth. “Pantheon” by contrast, is all plot, virtually a mockery of plot machinations which continually reverse as quickly as the dialogue of “School.”
      Both plays, despite their short form, actually struggle with significant ideas despite the superficial mockery of their own form. “School,” much the shorter, under twenty minutes, presents two middle-aged characters, A and B, academics of some sort at a school—one might be an administrator, the other a teacher. But the relationship is not clear. Nor is there, exactly, a conflict as in a conventional play. What there is instead is back and forth. Lots of it. A, John Pankow, questions posters that the younger children have put up in the hall. All the posters shout for the virtues of saving the planet by recycling. A more or less ponders if there isn’t something wrong with filling the walls with posters about recycling. But B retorts that it is perfectly fine because, practicing what they preach, the children did all their posters on recycled paper. And the dialogue zings back and forth from there, A positing that some energy must be spent in recycling the paper, finally coming down to the conservation of matter dictum that nothing can be lost or gained. B challenges this assumption, A defending it as a matter Physicists all acknowledge. B queries Dresden—wasn’t the city destroyed. And from there the debate veers off into the matter for Historians. Every issue, finally, is relegated to another specialized discipline. When asked how the posters are recycled, B replies they are taken by the custodial staff. “Janitors” A asks, and political correctness and renaming is skewed, as are unions which set their own regulations, with A finally conceding he doesn’t know or want to inquire if, in fact, the paper carefully gathered is actually taken to recycling by the custodial staff who are not under his supervision, but under the union’s itself. To be sure someone in the audience is offended, B even posits that the students in the upper grades even dress provocatively, yet one would be killed if one acted out toward them. And A responds with an amazing Mamet twist: “I don’t share your taste, but I share your perception.”
Rod McLachlan as A sat on one side of the desk, in sport coat, just the right amount of stuffiness for an administrator. Pankow, in shirt and tie, across from him, both almost exchanging these views as if in a teacher’s lounge. When Pankow did a great job with Mamet overspeak, and yet was always more a baffled questioner than a belligerant thus eliminating any conflict that might have been played between the two.  I can’t wait to see the script so that I can do a reading of it with Michael Kaffer for some Faculty Friday at our College. The conclusion of the play skewers the two as they decide that one thorny issue they finally must abandon because, it is a matter for the Philosophers, and neither wants to get into that. The punch line, however, to the whole play is weak, or was weakly delivered, when Pankow had attacked the whole idea of putting up posters as detrimental to the environment they were trying to save, and McLachlan concludes, but without posters, “How would we transmit information?” It was too much like a bad Saturday Night Live attempt at a punch line to get out of a situation that offered no real resolution.
      “Pantheon” suffered from the same kind of clever last line which just falls flat, as Michael Cassidy as Philius is offered an internship in real estate, and Jack Wallace, to whom the play is dedicated, as Ramus, gets the last laugh, “In this market?” As the names indicate, this play is a result of too much Plautus—and skews the whole notion of comic reversal by continually reversing the fate of a pair of poor actors in Rome. But despite the mockery of dramatic plotting, the underlying issue, the philosophical issue if one will, though Mamet would be affronted to imply it, is precisely about the notion of fate and fortune and causality. These issues, of course, underlie the whole concept of plot, and Mamet’s deconstruction of plot reveals this issue at its heart.
      At the center of the play in the Atlantic production (it debuted in June 2008 in Los Angeles) is Brian Murray as Strebo, an old actor, in a role originated by Ed O’Neill in L.A. I can’t imagine how O’Neill might have done it, with his more regional voice and accent; Murray hammed it up magnificently, as if played by Olivier with beautifully rounded vowels, and powerful voice, continually decrying fate—once in a speech from Plautus himself. The key to great comedy is always to play it seriously, and Murray did this with a vengeance. He was ably assisted by Pankow as Pelargon who in this play revealed his talent as a pure reactor whose eyes never leave the main actor, and give him the total focus. In this role, Pankow is the understater to Strabo the overstater, and the two worked back and forth, one lamenting the fate and the gods, the other deflating such pretention. And their young apprentice plays the pharmakos, the country bumpkin innocent who chimes in with the naïve perspective. The three voices combine the cynical, the naïve, and the inflated and rhetorical into a perfect blend of responses to fate:
Philius. You are a wise mentor.
            Strabo. Where, in this spotted life have I heard words as sweet . . .
Philius. I look forward to our time in Sicily
            Strabo. As do I, my amphora of honeyed mead. […(Philius exits.)]
Strabo. Well, he’s willing, he’s young, he’s beautiful, and perhaps he’ll learn.
            Pelargon. And perhaps the sun, in search of novelty, will rise in the west.
            Strabo. How ill your cynicism becomes you. (45)
Of course both plays are all male, not too Plautus-esque. And except for the school girls, women are never mentioned. Strabo is only after his apprentice Philius. But the turns of phrase and clever plotting reversal after reversal show how carefully Mamet crafts his work.
David K. Sauer
Atlantic Theatre
September, 2009