I was on my way to the basement of a church in NW Washington to see a play I had never heard of, a minor work from a major voice in theater, one of my favorites, in fact. I was directed around back and down the stairs of the Universalist National Memorial Church to see a play that I had missed between American Buffalo and GlenGarry Glen Ross.
My expectations were cautiously in check for David Mamet’s The Water Engine at Spooky Action Theater.
All the more remarkable then to be happily transported by the thoroughly first-rate and entertaining production.
The Water Engine, subtitled an American fable, is literally a man vs. machine tragedy, the cautionary tale of Charles Lang, a small-time dreamer, an anonymous press operator by day who discovers the key to a revolutionary engine which runs exclusively on water, a discovery that threatens to disrupt the leviathan fossil fuel industry and change the course of history.
The ill-fated Lang becomes embroiled in a Kafkaesque nightmare when he tries to patent his invention, ultimately falling victim to shadowy but seemingly all-powerful forces personified by two malevolent lawyers.
The cynical and violent quashing of Lang’s quest for proletarian scientific progress is ironically juxtaposed against the backdrop of the 1933/34 Century of Progress Chicago World’s Fair, an idealistic and unfettered celebration of technology and the future.
The Water Engine is a simple but devastatingly pessimistic appraisal of the American Dream that Mamet originally wrote for the radio in 1977. Paranoia reigns in what’s often a taut, noirish thriller, as Lang realizes his predicament and criss-crosses the city from Bughouse Square to the World’s Fair to the Lincoln Park Zoo trying to stay a step ahead of his enemies.
Before the play finds its home in surrealistic torment, the staging takes shape in the style of a live radio drama of old, with the radio performers reading from scripts, playing multiple roles and creating Foley sound effects on one side of the stage, in synch with the actors playing out the drama on the other side.
“When Mamet wrote The Water Engine, he gave us the option to stage the work as a live radio play, act the story out or both,” explained director Richard Henrich. “Our version is a clash of those two worlds, the world of reality, in the radio studio, and the world of imagination, which materializes outside,” he said.
To the great credit of Henrich and the entire cast, especially the radio performers, this dual staging is executed flawlessly. The 12 cast members inhabit dozens of parts, skillfully depicting radio actors, principals in the play and incidental Chicagoans in delightful character sketches.
Alongside David Crandall’s sound, the Foley artists and radio cast create agitated crowds, busy city streets, a newsroom, and a wonderfully eerie empty exposition hall at closing time, complete with ghostly PA announcements advertising “rocket ships of the future…”
The ensemble has to work in consummate harmony to make this complicated interplay work, and they succeed through Henrich’s imaginative direction.
Character actor Ian LeValley plays Lang as a rube with a quietly simmering volcanic fury, suspicious of others’ interest from the start, only to be cruelly justified in his distrust. His characterization is genuine and fervent in its desperation as he feels the vise-grip of circumstances tightening around him. Due to the nature of the play, whereby Lang and his story are in one respect the conception of a radio drama, LeValley must put up with some strange contortions and interruptions to his acting path, but as the play gets going, he successfully becomes the everyman the audience sympathizes with.
In a production which employs surrealism at times and in which a few of the other actors can’t quite hide affectation, LeValley plays Lang assuredly, physically, whether in despair or sharply standing his ground in the face of adversity. Only in scenes of reverie does the actor allow the expressionist muddlement to wash over him.
Scott Seder is a force in both of the roles he inhabits. As the radio director, Seder conducts the on-air proceedings with a maestro’s solidity. He effortlessly menaces as the villainous corporate interest Oberman, employing a mixture of chilling intimidation and focused persuasion.
Chuck Young is fun to watch as the inscrutable lawyer Gross, the “good cop” to Oberman’s evil incarnate.
The radio performers deserve a second mention for their spirited and lively multiperformances. It is exceedingly charming to witness the bygone entertainment form of a radio drama performed so well.
Cat Martin’s period costumes also deserve mention. They are lovely evocations, and complement the dreamlike production.
I find one misstep in this otherwise fantastic night at the theater, and that’s the pestering Brechtian interweaving of the “Chainletter” and its disembodied historian, interjecting its bizarre, hard-to-follow chronicle throughout the play’s arc. I suspect this element may work on paper and over the airwaves, but its frequent starts and stops bathed in a red wash from limbo serve little purpose other than to awkwardly distract and turn the main action to soup. There is a payoff — you will have to wait for it — that is pleasingly welcomed, but not at the expense of the elaborate build-up.
As I said at the outset, I did not expect much from this production in a church basement. What I found was truly one of those harkened examples of much generated from little. Spooky Action Theater’s The Water Engine is a brilliantly well put together physical entertainment with winning performances and a universal story. I wholeheartedly recommend that you find your way to their basement and experience it for yourself.
The Water Engine
By David Mamet
Directed by Richard Henrich
Produced by Spooky Action Theater
Reviewed by Roy Maurer
Running time: 90 minutes, with one intermission