With David Mamet's plays one ordinarily associates four-letter words ending in "uck" with the sixth letter of the alphabet. Some might say it's a relief that he backed off a little and chose a d-word for The Duck Variations, currently being produced by the Madison Theatre Guild. But the occasional f-bomb might have livened up this very slight comedy.
To be sure, there are some comic zingers in a play that has inescapable parallels to Samuel Beckett's existential meditation Waiting for Godot. Two disenchanted characters meet in a familiar yet unspecified location and swap repetitive disconnected anecdotes about...what, exactly? But Mamet, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, is no Samuel Beckett.
In the game of cricket, a duck is the term used when a batsman scores no runs. It means, literally, "nothing." So maybe the two friends, played amiably enough by Tom Haig and Cal Bruce, are doing just that - riffing on variations of nothing, whether it's philosophical nothingness or simply inconsequential subjects. This particular interpretation may be giving Mamet more credit than he deserves, but in any case, the more obvious conversation about feathered fowl does occasionally offer some wry observations on the human condition.
As for the actors, Haig is believable in his dotage, waxing rhapsodic in ways that are as risible as they are ridiculous. Bruce is more effective when he is silent, his face expressing more depth of feeling than his stilted vocal delivery does. But the couple never really coalesce, and we are left to watch two people trying to show us that they have a quirky longstanding friendship, rather than becoming privy to the vagaries of an actual relationship.
In a space as intimate as the Bartell's Evjue Theatre, minor quirks rapidly become major irritations. The excessive use of hand gestures, for instance, is maddeningly distracting. Nevertheless, it was good to see such a large (and largely enthusiastic) turnout for a duck-soup production that certainly has some flavor, but could definitely use a little more spice.