The Last Two People on Earth offers a dream apocalypse — at least for theatergoers. In the sweet, song-and-dance revue currently at the Eisemann Center, global warming has flooded the planet, and we’re left trapped on a patch of dry land with Mandy Patinkin. So, while the rest of the world slowly gurgles to its end, we get to sit and listen to Patinkin sing.
Not such a bad way to go, all in all. Developed by Patinkin, off-Broadway dazzle-master Taylor Mac and Tony Award-winning director-choreographer Susan Stroman, The Last Two People puts the two performers inside the old New Yorker cartoon set-up: Two castaways are lost on a desert isle.
And the punchline?
For Mac, Patinkin and Stroman, the punchline is found in their faith that singing and dancing and old-school vaudeville clowning will save us. These are the most indestructible of human art forms, it seems — the most forgiving, the most redemptive. No survival kit should come without a bowler hat, a cane, some gags and a good repertoire of show tunes.
This isn’t such an unfamiliar premise. Strip out the whole notion of human redemption and you’ve got something like a musical version of Endgame on an island. Pratfalls will persist, singing will endure. We — all the rest of us in this room — we may be doomed, but these human arts will outlast empires.
Set designer Beowulf Borrit‘s funky proscenium arch and clam-shell footlights — and the lovely, silent, shadow play that Patinkin performs as a scene-setter — frame all this in quotation marks. We are in a different country called “the theater.” The show’s whimsy and its self-consciousness are clearly signaled. The Last Two People may invoke the devastating Biblical flood, it may involve ethnic hatreds and fear. But we know from the start this is a comic duo in a comforting buddy comedy, and inevitably, there’ll be duets. To quote a line from a Sondheim song Patinkin has recorded: Here, no one is alone.
Well, maybe. Sometimes, Patinkin might as well be alone, he so dominates the proceedings. The Last Two People can seem a more elaborate version of a Patinkin solo concert. This is not a knock against Taylor Mac’s performance — quite the opposite. Taylor Mac is one of the few performers whose energy, charm and vocal range could match Patinkin’s. But the vaudeville format softens and confines him — it “straightens” him — while Patinkin exults in it. This is Patinkin’s swimming pool to splash around in.
Mac first appears dragging a raft on to a beach. Despite his plight, he’s an endearing eager-beaver, upbeat and helpful. Having discovered the grumpy and bearded Patinkin hiding in a trunk, Mac happily endows this Caliban with the many gifts he’s ingeniously stocked. Instead of whipping up a tempest like Prospero, he pulls a complete picnic setting — including a lit candle — out of his pants.
In the relationship that develops between the two, Mac plays gentle-hearted Stan Laurel to Patinkin’s pushier, testier Oliver Hardy. This means Mac’s normally outlandish presence, his talents, even his incandescent charm are dimmed about 30 percent. We’re left with little more than a buoyant Boy Scout with a lovely voice.
One gets the impression that if the great clown-dancer Bill Irwin could truly belt a tune, he could replace Mac easily enough. But it’s hard to imagine The Last Two People without Patinkin. Most of the dramatic changes reside with him, and we get his trademark intensity. It’s Patinkin’s character who brings the biting rage and the racism, it’s his lonely, wounded character who must reconcile himself to his fellow man. Even when it’s Mac who has a breakdown and weeps — singing his own song “Fear Itself” about the many ‘isms’ that threaten us (nationalism, jingoism) — what we mostly witnesss is Patinkin cradling Mac. Instead of Mac’s grief, we see the now-open-minded, now-sympathetic Patinkin consoling him.
Except for that momentary breakdown, Mac’s castaway never really wavers in his cheery pluck. The Last Two People may be as un-flamboyant, as un-gay, as Mac’s ever been on stage. He even rolls his eyes and winces in cute, coy embarrassment when various heterosexual love songs have him addressing Patinkin as “her.”
This is a lost opportunity. Classic comedy duos often played off their gay implications: Consider the number of times Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis or Hope and Crosby ended up in drag. About as homoerotic as things get here is the duet “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday on Saturday Night?,” a song Al Jolson introduced in 1916.
None of this means The Last Two People isn’t utterly entertaining and endearing. We’re talking about Patinkin and Mac belting away at everything from Tin Pan Alley to Paul Simon to Gillian Welch’s “My Morphine.” Patinkin’s vibrato has become increasingly affected, however — he ends up swallowing consonants. If he sang Sondheim’s “Being Alive” today, it’d sound like “Bein’ A Lie.” Occasionally, a song doesn’t seem directly related to the entire-lost-at-sea situation. With one number, I wondered what food processing had to do with their predicament. But my daughter pointed out to her clueless father that Patty Griffin’s “Making Pies” expressed the two men’s boredom at having to pass the time. Ah. Of course.
Perhaps it’s simply demanding too much from a giggle-some “Apocalyptic Vaudeville,” as the show is sub-titled. But let’s imagine, if instead of sticking to the baggy-pants vaudeville conventions, Taylor Mac appeared as he often does (above) — as some friendly, glittering combination of rare orchid and yard-sale remnant. And if he sang like the same. It’s true that just this image, this alien presence, would complicate, possibly even violate the show’s whole set-up that these are the last two Samuel Beckett hobos on the planet.
But it would also heighten (and complicate) the show’s fuzzy-warm message that ‘We Must All Get Along.” At the beginning, when Patinkin’s grouchy character rejects Mac’s funny, young hetero, it’s easy enough for us to see this shell-shocked creep as horrid. The new young visitor to the island may be a tad dweebish, but he’s been heroic and generous. What kind of soul-damaged meanie would shove him away? “We can bridge our differences” is the show’s basic narrative, and with Mac’s amiable character, it’s easy enough for Patinkin to do just that, to change, to open his heart. All it takes is the right combination of duets and a little soft-shoe.
So consider what it would mean if Mac really were different, if he looked and acted absolutely ‘Other’ — foreign, gay, ethnically ‘odd,’ transgender, religiously demanding, physically or mentally damaged? What if — to some minds in the audience at least — Patinkin’s initial fear, even his anger, seemed justified?
I’m not asking The Last Two People to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I just want it to up the emotional message delivery it’s got going. In my suggested scenario, the racial-religious-sexual hurdles facing our two stage clowns from getting happy together would be a smidge higher. Their musical-theater, cabaret-and-comedy shticks would have to overcome one or two real human challenges. That’s all. Because as it stands now, there’s little wonder these last two people on earth would soon share songs, share food, share griefs, share laughs and share a raft.
From the start, they never really were all that odd an odd couple.