A savvy theatergoer could be forgiven for supposing that the only circumstance in which Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac would create a show together would be if the two theater artists, each with very different bodies of work, were the last two people on earth.
Patinkin, of course, is the song-and-dance man and Broadway veteran — he won a Tony Award with his 1979 debut, in “Evita” — whose work in film and television has yielded familiar characters like Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride” and Saul Berenson on Showtime’s “Homeland.” Mac is a boundary-crashing playwright, songwriter, and performer known for employing elaborate makeup and costumes, whose work is much celebrated by critics and fans but who is quite happy on the fringe, thank you very much.
But the two have seized upon their seeming differences as the germ for a show. The one-act posits these two as sole survivors of a worldwide climate catastrophe, finding a way to communicate with each other through song and dance. “The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville” makes its debut at American Repertory Theater, beginning with a preview performance on Tuesday.
“I wanted it to be about two people, and in the beginning one is terrified to listen to anything or to be open to anything, and the other is completely optimistic and hopeful,” Patinkin explains in a phone interview, “and slowly you realize the optimistic one also has secrets and issues, and they begin to trust each other, and a beautiful relationship starts to form.”
The piece is totally sung-through, with songs ranging from Broadway classics by the likes of Stephen Sondheim to Queen to two Mac originals. Susan Stroman, whose five Tony Awards include one for directing “The Producers,” came on board to direct and choreograph. Longtime Patinkin accompanist Paul Ford, who the actor describes as “the Library of Congress when it comes to Broadway show tunes and songs from movies,” is musical director.
Patinkin and Mac were first brought together by Rachel Chavkin, founding artistic director of the New York company The TEAM, who had the idea of pairing them for a benefit performance. They put together a few numbers for that occasion and discovered a winning artistic relationship. “It was too good to just say ‘Goodnight, Gracie,’ and have that be it,” Patinkin says.
Mac says he taught himself to sing, as a 13-year-old, with the help of Patinkin’s first album. “Nobody in the theater world would ever cast me to do something like this,” Mac admits. “Sometimes when you make work that is a little outside the mainstream, people think you resent the mainstream. But I don’t.”
Stroman says the work each man has done previously may be dissimilar, but each brought complementary tools into the rehearsal studio where they put the show together through a series of improvisational rehearsals, off and on over the course of a few years.
“Taylor is very famous below 14th Street and very much of a downtown artist, and of course Mandy’s a bit more mainstream, and coming together they both have respect for what each other does, and that means a lot,” she says, noting that the mixture of each artist’s fans made for an “electricity” in the audience during earlier workshop performances.
The show takes cues from vaudeville and silent film, on a desert island milieu that calls Beckett to mind. Mac plays the sunny, optimistic one in the pair; Patinkin is his grumpier, more-wizened counterpart who has to be enticed out of his trunk at the top of the show. In the “rules” of this world, they are unable to speak to each other. They find a way to relate, and respond to the apocalyptic calamity that prompted their meeting, through movement and song.
A big creative decision, Patinkin says, was whether Mac should wear the often-dazzling regalia with which he typically performs. “Some people would refer to him as a drag queen, but that’s a complete misnomer. It’s the furthest thing from what he is. To me, he’s Lear’s Fool, who is the smartest person in the room,” Patinkin says.
“As we kept working and evolving, we quickly realized it wasn’t necessary,” he adds, speaking of Mac’s typical costuming, “that we were two naked souls. All the gear had washed away and all that was left was these two human beings, struggling to be alive — and they have their canes and their bowler hats. And themselves.”
Mac, who has worked in mainstream musical theater as an emerging actor, says “The Last Two People on Earth” proved an inviting reintroduction.
“This was this thing that came out of the blue, and it reminded me how much I love it,” he says. “Forgetting about that world, and then being invited back into it in such a loving way has been one of the great joys of my life.”
For his part, Patinkin says he’s relishing the chance to show his comedic chops.
“Whenever I do something funny on ‘Homeland,’ they cut it out,” he says, bursting into a quick laugh.
The Last Two
People On Earth:
An Apocalyptic Vaudeville
Conceived by Paul Ford,
Taylor Mac, Mandy Patinkin,
and Susan Stroman
Directed and choreographed
Presented by American Repertory Theater
At: Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, May 12-31
Tickets: Starting at $25,
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.