When a theater company presents two one-acts by different playwrights — as Mustard Seed Theatre is currently doing under the direction of Deanna Jent — the natural tendency is to determine what links them together. For Mrs. Sorken and The Duck Variations, the obvious link is the incongruity of their existence; Mrs. Sorken is a Christopher Durang play that savages no one, and The Duck Variations is a David Mamet work in which nary an F-word is uttered. But beyond that surface similarity is a stronger connection that slowly becomes clear with time and distance. Both are meditations on how we talk about the big topics — love, life, the meaning of art — and both are presented from an older viewpoint.
The titular Mrs. Sorken (Peggy Billo) is a woman of a certain age, here to introduce an evening at the theater. She has lost her notes and must deliver her speech (the topic: why theater matters) from memory.
Billo delivers this discursive monologue in the tone of a cheerful theater enthusiast. You'll recognize the type if you frequent plays. Mrs. Sorken still dresses up for a night out with a hat, pearls and nice shoes, and she has a great admiration for the work that's presented, even when she doesn't like or understand it. Zigzagging between her topic and a series of unfettered digressions about her husband, Mrs. Sorken gradually reveals that she's much brighter than she's letting on. She believes art is good for the soul, and that at its best, theater is art that makes you respond emotionally — even when, as in tonight's case, it's by David Mamet and cluttered with all that profanity, which Mrs. Sorken doesn't enjoy.
She probably found quite a bit to like in The Duck Variations, however. Emil (Richard Lewis) and George (Bobby Miller) share a bench beside a lake and embark on a rambling, free-form examination of life that constantly returns to its starting point: the ducks bobbing on the surface of the lake.
"You know, a duck's life isn't all hearts and flowers," George cautions before delivering a litany of woes that plague ducks, including sexual dysfunction and the increase in chain stores. Emil adds the threat of "small, vicious children," with grim intensity. This initial exchange lays the foundation for their conversation, which is by turns convivial, argumentative, commiserative and confused. Facts are made up, baldfaced lies are sworn as truths (the giant panda at the zoo was "two stories tall" per George, and they were put to sleep when it became too expensive to feed them), but the conversation always resumes.
Lewis and Miller do marvelous work bringing these old men to grouchy life, making them a beautiful counterpoint to Billo's easy-to-laugh Mrs. Sorken. And that's what these two plays are really about: life, in all its frustrations and charm. It's easy to be annoyed by your fellow man (or your husband), but we still seek out one another out for comfort, or, at least, contact. We're social creatures driven by the need to create something meaningful, even if it's only a friendship — even if it only exists onstage, until the lights come up.