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Poster for the debut production of Geoff Nelson's new troupe, A Portable Theatre

Poster for The Duck Variations, starring Jonathan Putnam (seated) and Geoffrey Nelson (photo courtesy of A Portable Theatre)

By Richard Ades

After watching a local 2012 production of November, David Mamet’s clunky attempt at political satire, it was hard to get enthused over the prospect of seeing another Mamet comedy.

On the other hand, it was easy to get enthused over the prospect of seeing the debut of Geoffrey Nelson’s new touring troupe, A Portable Theatre. Especially since the production starred both Nelson and longtime cohort Jonathan Putnam.

The two CATCO alums have been doing theater together for more than 30 years, as Nelson noted on opening night, and it shows in the easy way they play off each other. Working under Nelson’s direction, they mine every bit of humor from Mamet’s two-person one-act, The Duck Variations.

The surprising bonus, for those who suffered through November, is that the one-act has quite of bit of humor to mine. Written in 1972, when Mamet was just closing in on the quarter-century mark, it’s basically a wide-ranging conversation between two strangers who meet in a park.

Politics, economics, friendship, pollution—these and more topics come up. But the conversation starts with and often returns to ducks, with which each of the men seems to identify in various ways. Being at an age when they’re aware of their own mortality, they particularly sympathize with the males who attain leadership roles only to be replaced by younger males when they’re felled by death.

It’s all a bit profound, and just a little sad. Mostly, though, it’s funny, thanks to the personality clashes that arise.

Emil (Nelson) is frankly lonely and is happy to find someone to talk to, but he can’t help being annoyed by his companion’s tendency to bloviate on subjects he obviously knows little about. George (Putnam), for his part, becomes both annoyed and defensive when his misstatements are questioned.

At one point, George goes so far as to insist that birds are the only animals capable of flight. Only later, after Emil drops the subject, is he willing to admit that insects also have been known to take wing.

In a talkback session after the opening-night performance, Nelson explained that the characters are meant to be in their 60s. That probably seemed ancient to the then-20-something playwright, who imbued them with several familiar characteristics of old age.

Being in his 60s himself, Nelson said, he actually thinks of the men as being in their 80s. However, neither actor makes an obvious effort to age his character. This subtle approach allows Emil and George to come across, not as stereotypical oldsters, but as individuals who are touchingly vulnerable and recognizably—and hilariously—human.

A Portable Theatre will present The Duck Variations through June 23. Show times are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the BalletMet Performance Space, 322 Mount Vernon Ave.; and 8 p.m. Wednesday and 11 a.m. Thursday at Abbey Theater of Dublin, 5600 Post Road. Running time: 50 minutes. Tickets are $20, $10 students ($15/$10 students at Thursday matinee). Aportabletheatre.com.

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