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The Last Two People on Earth, an Apocalyptic Vaudeville

What do you do if the world is coming to an end? Sing and dance, of course!

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Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac in The Last Two People on Earth, directed by Susan Stroman, at American Repertory Theater.
(© Gretjen Helene Photography)

If Samuel Beckett had been a musical-comedy writer, fearing the wrath of Mother Nature rather than an uncaring deity, he might have penned The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville. According to its creators — musical director Paul Ford, performers Taylor Mac and Mandy Patinkin, and director-choreographer Susan Stroman — the world will end not with a bang and a whimper but with a song and a dance — or a series of them. The show has set down for a three-week run at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, courtesy of American Repertory Theater.

Truth to tell, the important warning about climate change and its coming dire effects hardly registers here because of the charm of this musical two-hander. The wide-eyed, shaven-headed optimist Taylor Mac is paired with a growly, grouchy Mandy Patinkin — a combination forged somewhere in show-biz heaven. Who knew that Mac's downtown-New York aesthetic would blend so well with Patinkin's multitude of commercial personalities, not to mention the fine melding of their voices? Despite their differences — age, stage persona, experience — it's not hard to believe in this buddy pairing as the world disintegrates around them.

According to their version of the day after the reckoning, the last structure left standing is an old, ruined theater, complete with a proscenium arch. Mac enters stage right, scuttling in on his back and pulling a beat-up, orange rubber raft after him. When he drops anchor over the edge of the real stage, he reaches down into his baggy pants, pulls out a napkin, plate, and utensils, and prepares to eat an apple — which disappears. Mac soon discovers the thief, a disheveled Patinkin who has taken refuge in a large trunk that harkens back to years of travel on the vaudeville circuit. There follows an hour and 10 minutes of getting-to-know-you feelers through the medium of the American songbook, as if conversation and dialogue were an art lost along with the rest of civilized behavior.

The music, smartly performed by the pair, and choreographed to a fare-thee-well by Stroman, includes forgotten ditties such as "Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday on Saturday Night?", along with more familiar tunes by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Gilbert and Sullivan. R.E.M. and Randy Newman are also in the mix. The lyrics form a scenario that begins with the build-up of their relationship, accommodating to each other, and how they resolve their conflicts, even if it means going off for a good sulk. There's even a nod to the change of seasons with a Christmas scene, and another blast of once-in-a-hundred-years weather. The special effects are reminiscent of the 19th-century melodrama, with the big storm staged in billowing curtains, dancing lights and the sound of a thunder sheet. Stroman varies the mood and tempos of the numbers, not to mention the dance steps, to assure that the audience is always engaged.

Patinkin and Mac make such a terrific pair of vaudevillians as they perform every trick out of the variety artists' handbook, even to Patinkin's self-accompaniment with a pair of rattling spoons on his knee, that it's a shame the Keith-Albee office or Ed Sullivan are no longer booking the acts. It's hard to know where this pastiche might land — off-Broadway, in a cabaret, or perhaps on a regional tour. What is certain: Unlike the prognosis for the future of the planet, this show must go on.

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