Todd Weeks, Michael Cassidy, John Pankow,
and Brian Murray in Keep Your Pantheon
(© Ari Mintz)
Todd Weeks, Michael Cassidy, John Pankow,
and Brian Murray in Keep Your Pantheon
(© Ari Mintz)
Slight is the word that comes to mind repeatedly during David Mamet's School and Keep Your Pantheon, the two short plays that are playing at the Atlantic Theater Company.

The curtain raiser, School, brings to mind Mamet's Speed-the-Plow as two school teachers, 'A' (John Pankow) and 'B' (Rod McLachlan) debate the merits of a student art project that touts the merits of conservationism and at the same time has used copious amounts of paper. The men's banter -- expertly calibrated by director Neil Pepe and performed with comic rat-a-tat intensity by the performers -- spirals to other subjects from the laws of physics to sexual impropriety between students and teachers, but it's difficult to discern what Mamet intends by the guys' swooping from topic to topic. Anyone who's been around public school teachers will find that the discussion about the custodial staff rings with incisive irony, but by the time the piece reaches its conclusion -- which calls into question warfare -- it's difficult to know what one is to learn from School.

In Pantheon, Mamet has channeled his inner George S. Kaufman and Morrie Riskind to create a Marx Brothers-like piece about a trio of down-on-their-luck actors in ancient Rome. Led by grandiose and lecherous Strabo (Brian Murray in an appropriately scene-chewing turn), the group -- which also includes the pragmatically dour Pelargon (a terrifically dry Pankow) and the pretty Philius (played with sweet vapidity by Michael Cassidy) -- can't afford to pay its rent and has no prospects for engagements.

When Strabo buys a good luck charm off Ramus (imbued with crusty dimness by Jack Wallace), a homeless war veteran who's dropped by to bum some wine off the guys, things start to look up. Another acting troupe is drowned in an accident at sea, and Strabo's group is soon being invited to perform for the wealthiest man in Rome. But, Strabo takes his group and their satiric material to the wrong place -- and suddenly, they're not the toast of Rome, but are slated for execution.

With a scenario like this, theatergoers might expect Pantheon to explode into some sort of harsh commentary on the nature of arts patronage. Instead, it becomes a middling farce as Strabo and crew attempt to extricate themselves from their dire predicament. Perhaps the most scathing element of the script is a joke that wears thin after its first or second airing: The scenes of the piece are punctuated by appearances from a Herald (Steven Hawley) that act as commercials for products like Lynx Brand opium.

Costume designer Ilona Somogyi provides both opulent and pedestrian period togas and military attire, and a series of trompe l'oeil backdrops from scenic designer Takeshi Kata are marvelously rendered and atmospheric. But despite the handsome physical production and the well-crafted performances -- particularly Murray, Pankow, and J.J. Johnson, who plays a hard-nosed Roman soldier with panache -- these amiable plays really only serve to whet the appetite for the more substantial Mamet plays (Oleanna and Race) being presented in New York this season.