CAMBRIDGE — One is a bouncy bald guy in a bowler hat, eager to please. The other is a scraggy bearded fellow hiding in a trunk, resigned to solitude. They are the last two people on Earth, and they meet on a scrap of land that has survived a flood of global warming proportions. Somehow, they need to connect, despite their differences in temperament and their inability to communicate through anything but song.
These two fellows are Taylor Mac, the playwright and cabaret performer known for his wowza drag costumes, and Mandy Patinkin, the Tony Award-winning star of stage, television, and film. They give a charming performance together in “The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville,” a two-hander in its debut run at the American Repertory Theater through May 31. On paper, they seem as far apart as the last two lonely people could be. On stage, they appear as two parts of a whole, free of individual ego. They are joined at the hip, and sometimes the hands and knees, and their collaboration is simply delightful.
The concept is simple: Mac’s character washes up on Patinkin’s deserted island in an ingeniously stocked lifeboat, and the two survivors need to learn to live together, like the two tramps in “Waiting for Godot.” They find a common language through music, and the piece is a valentine not just to musical theater and its origins in vaudeville, but to musical performance of all kinds. The 90-minute show’s eclectic score, sung-through without dialogue, ranges from tunes by Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim to Tom Waits, the Pogues, and Freddie Mercury (yes, there is a strain of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the mix).
The two seemingly unlikely collaborators developed the piece with director Susan Stroman and music director Paul Ford, and the show uses music to carry the performers through various stages of grief and through the process of falling in love with another human being. Mac, the cheerful castaway who dials down his fabulous outrageousness here, is in denial of his dire situation at first. After the deluge, he lays out a red-and-white checkered tablecloth and sets a fine table, as if the world were still normal. Patinkin is standoffish and needs to be convinced that life can go on. They are on a journey toward acceptance, and apocalypse be damned, they are going to survive together with their battered tuxes and canes.
In other hands, this could be a precious exercise in “What would you bring if you were stranded on a desert island?” But the sentimentality is spiked with a dose of fury. Mac’s bouncy character has demons that need to be exorcised through Celtic punk, and Patinkin’s character needs to shed his bitterness and anger. Together, they work it out. The piece isn’t overtly political, but by the end of Sondheim’s “Another National Anthem” from “Assassins,” it’s clear that the two men understand that if everyone had been a little less greedy and a little more tolerant, maybe they wouldn’t have found themselves in this global mess.
Stroman’s direction and choreography is whimsical, with nods to vaudeville and silent film. And Ford’s musical direction is spot-on, peppered with haunting strains from the musical “Cabaret,” a subtle reminder of the damage mankind can create.
Patinkin and Mac are like two sides of the same coin, bickering at times and holding each other up at others. At the end of the world, they both shed their diva status and share the stage as equals (until the curtain call). This isn’t a hit-you-over-the-head piece about Armageddon, but rather a testament to the human spirit and the American musical canon. The two virtuoso performers come to the ultimate stage of acceptance at the end and row off together into the sunset, just two guys in a lifeboat powered by companionship and song.
THE LAST TWO PEOPLE
AN APOCALYPTIC VAUDEVILLE
Conceived by Paul Ford,
Taylor Mac, Mandy Patinkin,
and Susan Stroman
Directed by Stroman
Music direction, Paul Ford; sets Beowulf Boritt; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Ken Billington; sound,
Daniel J. Gerhard.
Presented by the American Repertory Theater
At: Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, through May 31
Tickets: Starting at $25,
Patti Hartigan can be reached at email@example.com.