The Eisemann Center is presenting a world-premiere show called The Last Two People on Earth. The two-man comedy stars actor-singer Mandy Patinkin and performance artist Taylor Mac. KERA’s Jerome Weeks explains how this odd couple got together to survive the end of the world.
You may know Mandy Patinkin from Showtime’s hit series, Homeland. Or his other Emmy Award-winning TV performances (Chicago Hope). Or the beloved film, The Princess Bride (“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”) And then there’s, you know, just his whole singing career on Broadway and in concert (Evita, Sunday in the Park with George).
But odds are you don’t know Taylor Mac. Not unless you follow boundary-breaking, off-Broadway, transvestite, performance artists. He may have been born in Abilene, Texas, but the Obie Award-winner grew up in California — so his appearance at the Undermain Theatre five years ago was his official Texas stage debut. And it was quite the appearance. Mac is a playwright and actor who sings, charms, tells stories and plays the ukelele while dressed like a glittering yard sale.
So whose idea was it to bring these wildly different talents together in a show called The Last Two People on Earth?
“It was actually Rachel Chavkin’s,” says Mandy Patinkin. “She knew both of us, she was my Shakespeare coach when I did Prospero.”
Chavkin runs a Brooklyn-based theater company called TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment). Six years ago, she asked both men to perform a benefit concert.
Patinkin had never seen Mac perform, so they rehearsed some songs in street clothes in a studio; it all felt good. Then came the benefit – and Patinkin finally saw Mac in full voice and full regalia.
“He walked out there,” Patinkin recalls with a laugh. “I was quite stunned because this other energy came at me. And I was thrilled by it and I just thought, ‘My God, this is extraordinary.’ And I wanted to know what else we were meant to do.”
The two men are in Patinkin’s hotel suite in Richardson, their first full day in town, getting ready to rehearse this afternoon. They’re at ease, joking about how, in their search for music for this little new show they were thinking about, Mac introduced Patinkin to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” — he’d never heard it before, believe it or not. Now it’s a part of his regular concert shows, so it’s out of The Last Two People
But two new songs by Mac himself are in. Ever since that TEAM benefit, as their complicated schedules permitted, the two have met like this. They slowly assembled and developed their show with Tony Award-winning director-choreographer Susan Stroman and music director Paul Ford. The team had a brief, off-Broadway workshop more than a year ago. But now they think their little show is ready for its world-premiere.
The Last Two People is sub-titled, “An Apocalyptic Vaudeville.” There’s been a climate collapse, the world has flooded. Taylor Mac floats in on a raft. On an empty beach, he finds a big old trunk and inside, there’s Mandy Patinkin. The two wary survivors discover they can communicate only by singing.
Wait. So they can sing but they can’t talk? How does that work?
“It’s amazing what people will accept if you just present it to them that way,” says Mac — if, in other words, it’s just part of the stage conventions of the show. Like people breaking out in song or dance in the middle of a musical. Besides, “there’s this long tradition of clowns not speaking or of silent films, so I think it just feels kinda natural that we don’t speak. We just only sing songs, so that means, ‘Oh they don’t know how to talk.’”
“And we dance,” Patinkin adds, “and do vaudeville bits.”
Meaning, this is basically … a musical theater Waiting for Godot?
“That’s exactly what it is,” Mac giggles. “That’s exactly what it is,” Patinkin agrees.
Both Mac and Patinkin resist the easy notion that Last Two People represents uptown-meets-downtown, Broadway-meets-off-Broadway. Well, it can be that but only insofar as the show is about two strangers bringing together all of who they are.
“The beauty of it,” says Patinkin,”is the different worlds we come to. The father – son,” he says pointing to both of them, back and forth, trading roles. “The teacher – student. That’s part of the piece, consciously and unconsciously, by the material, by just our presences.”
The Last Two People will play the American Repertory Theatre in Boston in May, but there are no current plans to take it to New York. In fact, Mac and Patinkin say their aim is really just to tour it whenever they can, any place they can, provided the theater is small enough for them to do it without mics.
In short, their aim is kind of like the show itself.
“What was important to us was singing together,” says Patinkin, “and so we try to do that whenever possible.”
Mac chimes in: “We sing alone all the time, so it was more fun to sing together.”
“The point of this,” says Patinkin, “was not to be alone.”