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What if a car could run on water? The possibility exists in the garage of working-class inventor Charles Lang, as imagined by David Mamet in The Water Engine. This “American fable,” as the play is subtitled, is set during the Great Depression around the time of Chicago’s World’s Fair, and follows Lang’s efforts to to patent his revolutionary idea—-only to find himself hunted by Oberman and Gross, two corrupt lawyers with industrial ties who want to suppress the design.
Originally written in 1977 as a radio play, The Water Engine lacks the clipped, sardonic dialogue familiar to fans of Mamet. At Spooky Action Theater, what the show does provide is a platform for director Richard Henrich to play with how audiences engage with a theatrical production. At the very least, the effect is compelling. With a set by Vicki Davis and lights by Colin Dieck, Henrich creates two distinct universes—-two layers of reality—-with which the audience must connect. One, a radio studio, is closer to our world. The other is the visual manifestation of the narrative told by the radio station’s voice actors. And then there’s a “comprehensive ‘third reality,'” to quote Henrich quoting Mamet, created in the mind of the audience as it merges the first two.
The radio studio occupies stage left, and the performers relate Lang’s story in broadcast style. To stage right hangs a backdrop with images evoking the World’s Fair, where scenes are acted out in tandem with the narration and sound effects from the studio. Meanwhile, a disembodied voice reads a chain letter that’s making the Chicago rounds. The letter, voiced by Lynn Sharp Spears, warns recipients that we are all connected, and not to break the chain.
For the cast, the basic challenge is syncing their movements with the sounds made by players on the on the opposite side of the stage; they also mime almost every object they use, except for a few key props. As Lang, Ian LeValley is precise and impressive, as are Scott Seder and Chuck Young as Oberman and Gross. There’s also a fast-talking report (T. Griffin Jones) and Lang’s sister Rita (Mary Egan), who dreams of the better life her brother’s invention can provide. Four other members of the cast—-Noah Mitchel, Laura Rocklyn, Hilary Kacser and David Coyne—-spend the play voicing bit parts and making sound effects, and I found myself wishing Mamet’s scrip offered them something more substantive to do.
The collection of interlocking theatrical devices is interesting, but it works for and against the story’s impact. Seder, for example, is double-cast as Oberman and the radio studio’s director. Though Lang and Oberman share dialogue, LeValley and Seder don’t interact directly. Only Oberman’s voice, delivered from the radio studio, effects Lang, and the lawyer’s threats are all the more sinister for it.
But just as often, the formal experimentation is a distraction—-and worse, it forces a sense of emotional detachment from the plot. As Lang’s ownership of his idea comes under threat, so does his and Rita’s physical safety, and LeValley and Egan are up to the task of projecting that fear. Amid the production’s surreality, however, the suspense and danger don’t quite translate.
Still, there’s no avoiding the bleak view of humanity at the core of Mamet’s story. The fate that eventually befalls Lang, his sister, and his invention places the World’s Fair backdrop—-“A Century of Progress,” it proclaims—-in harsh relief, and mocks the chain letter’s claim that we are all of us connected. Henrich resists tying the material to our current economic and political climate, though he easily could’ve connected The Water Engine‘s thuglike conception of capitalism with contemporary Wall Street excess. In one particularly memorable line, Oberman asks, “Who said that if every man just acted in his own best interest, this would be a paradise on earth?” Perhaps wisely, Henrich lets his audience draw its own parallels.
The Water Engine runs through March 11.