Lakeboat was thought controversial when it debuted 40 years ago, but now it seems almost quaint, verging on classy. The very first script by David Mamet, it features many of the hallmarks of his style: vulgar language, clipped and repeated dialogue, and men being macho and misogynistic.
Perhaps it’s the changing times. Plays of this style, by Mamet and others, flourished in the 70s and beyond. It is a somewhat outmoded trope – the “rough and real” play showing largely working-class people behaving in ways a typical theater audience finds alien or distasteful, yet slowly revealing their hearts and souls underneath all that roughness. While recent examples such as Broadway’s Sweat modernize the trope, with Lakeboat there is a definite sense of distance.
It might be the subject of the play – Sweat depicts its industrial workers, fitting our times, as down-on-their-luck, while the workers on the titular lakeboat sailing the Great Lakes are gainfully employed. Dale Katzman (Jesse Milliner) joins the crew as a college student one summer and provides us the outsider’s perspective on these hard-workin’, hard-drinkin’ fellas.
closes July 23, 2017
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Or it might be the direction, by Raoul Anderson, who was part of the original production of this play back before David Mamet was the David Mamet. There is a wistful sense of lives passing by and passed by, an active yet calm pace, and staging that often has the characters gazing over the boat’s railing, at the audience, as if we were the lake.
This approach is probably the right one for this play nowadays, as it allows us to see through the sailors’ rough language and find it either humorous or sad (or sadly humorous). Damia Torhagen’s Fred, for instance, gives Dale a lengthy explanation of how he learned to be nasty to women in bed; we can see how Fred was misled, and the harm he does because of it, but we have a distance and perspective that makes it more pitiable than shocking. (That said, trigger warning: description of sexual assault.) This distancing effect is aided by having Torhagen, a woman, play this character as a man.
There are two throughlines in the play, one concerning Dale’s increasing familiarity with the crew and the other, the fate of an unseen crew member, but for the most part the throughlines are just there for Mamet to hang his monologues and dialogues on. There are short quippy ones, like an inarticulate argument about booze between Brendan Berndt’s Stan and Allen Saslaw’s Joe, which would have been surprising 40 years ago but are almost cute today. And there are extended ones where we get glimpses into the characters’ fears, philosophies, and hopes.
For all it gains from its overall approach and tone, the production is marred by uneven acting, which is deeply unfortunate when the play is nothing but character. A couple of the actors seem to be in different worlds – one giving an over-the-top military portrayal, another quietly reflective bordering on lackadaisical. The most successful are those like Berndt and Torhagen, who brightly portray the bluster of their characters while sneaking in those peeks at their interior lives. As well, a couple of the actors seemed to forget their lines or cues at times, which at the second show out of five is highly distracting and no longer excusable. An additional distraction is the use of rock and jazz music behind some of the monologues, played at a volume just loud enough to intrude but not loud enough to be effective background.
These errors are forgivable if you are in a forgiving mood, however. Mamet’s language and the highly sympathetic and nonjudgmental outlook of his early career are intact in Anderson’s capable hands. The men and women of the cast are all passionate and engaged even if their approaches are jarringly different. It’s not the Fringiest of shows, but you’re unlikely to have opportunities to see Lakeboat performed anywhere else.
Lakeboat by David Mamet . Directed by Raoul Anderson. Featuring Brendan Berndt, Patricia Williams Dugueye, Jesse Milliner, LJ Moses, Lorrie Smith Saito, Allen Saslaw, Peter Sweet, Damia Torhagen . Stage Furnishings by www.gottenfromgrammy.com . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.