A water engine -- the ideal (and theoretical) clean-burning motor -- runs on water. Mamet, in his play, imagines a naive young inventor in 1930s Chicago, Charles Lang, who builds a working one, then picks a lawyer blindly from the phone book to protect the patent. The lawyer, Morton Gross, happens to have shadowy connections with some big industry -- maybe oil or cars -- that presumably wouldn't want the water engine to succeed.
Gross involves another, sleazier lawyer named Oberman, who represents this industry outright. Together they sack Lang's lab and kill the project. Mamet's "American fable" is a dark just-so story to explain, on one level, why we don't use water engines.
Mamet has a habit of vague conspiracy-mongering that turns some of his scripts into thrillers, and The Water Engine is an early example. The concept is fascinating, but the characters feel plot-propelled. Mamet wrote the play for National Public Radio in the '70s and then re-adapted it for the stage, and I think it loses vigor in translation. Listening to a play on the radio encourages your mind to fill in details and colors, so Mamet's dark suggestions (through voice, terse comments, and foot scrapes) of the young inventor's fate would have a power there that isn't obvious in a theater.
Happily, director Kent Nicholson seems to think so, too. He lines up standing mikes along the rear of the stage and shines a dim yellow light on each performer's head. The effect is like an old tube radio, with a melancholy glowing dial. Nicholson believes that "in an increasingly visual world, we sometimes forget that the theater has always been a place where language can be heightened."
So he gives us little to look at beyond an artfully lit radio studio where the actors pronounce lines into their mikes and then stand still. Occasionally they come out to perform scenes center stage, but the emphasis, always, is on language. Mamet's dialogue tends to sound dumb unless it's performed in a specific, tightly measured rhythm, and Nicholson has focused his actors on finding it. Some passages are almost musical.
Michael Carroll plays Charles Lang with a strong mixture of callowness and grit, looking nerdy but stubborn in his bow tie. Broad-shouldered Michael Ray Wisely plays the lawyer Oberman in dark pinstripes, with an eerily soothing voice. Clive Worsley, as Morton Gross, somehow manages to resemble a shark. Most of the actors play several roles, and Jesse Caldwell is especially well shaded in his selection, ranging from Mr. Wallace the shop owner to a barker at the Chicago World's Fair. Mary Eaton Fairfield does a nice period performance as Charles' blind sister, Rita, who seems hesitant in a peculiarly 1930s way; Fairfield and Judy Phillips both contribute a whole bag full of colorful women's voices.
What this production does that the Actors Theater show failed to do last February is focus on an effect, with no distracting stage or lighting business. Mamet's ambient or scene-setting noises -- a running commercial for a chain letter, anarchists yelling in Bughouse Square, or the ironic backdrop of the 1934 "Century of Progress" exhibit -- now make sense. The actors pace themselves to the live foley sounds of Christian Schneider, who contributes realistic lunch whistles, typewriters, footsteps, socket wrenches, dial-ing phones, and of-fice buzzers, among other sounds. Valera Coble's clean costumes and Alex Lopez's lights also add to the effect. As a result, the show feels cohesive, and Nicholson has brought it closer to its roots, to the sound of radio in the 1930s.
The play still has boring stretches, though. It opens with a long one called "Mr. Happiness," a curtain-raiser. Clive Worsley, as Mr. Happiness, sits at a microphone in a radio studio, reading letters from desperate listeners. He's an on-air advice columnist who deals in every possible American folk-wisdom cliché. He's also not very happy. Worsley plays him with a funny measure of smarmy, grimacing exaggeration, but the script is too long. I still say it's a found object, as if Mamet thought transcribing an advice show verbatim was the best way to make fun of people like poor, drunken Mr. Happiness and the vast, lost culture that tunes him in. Nice idea, but hard to sit through.