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Watered-Down Mamet 

The Water Engine and Mr. Happiness

Wednesday, Feb 9 2000
David Mamet calls his play The Water Engine "an American fable," but engines using water for fuel, strangely, aren't the stuff of pure imagination. Inventors have toyed with the idea for years, both in and out of America; French plans for a water engine are easy to find on the Web. So why can't we run cars on water? Two possibilities: Either a) it just won't work, or b) certain big business interests have been standing in the way for decades. Mamet, for the sake of argument, picks b) to fashion the story of a young factory worker who invents a working water engine. He goes to a randomly chosen lawyer, Morton Gross, to ask about filing for a patent. Gross involves him with another lawyer who represents certain big business interests, and soon Lang's blind sister Rita has been kidnapped. It's a typical Mamet conspiracy -- all shadowy suggestion, no details -- set, ironically, around the "Century of Progress" exhibit in Chicago in 1934.

The script itself is a bare thriller cut with soapbox speeches about capitalism and a crazy lady who talks about chain letters. It needs fleshing out, but instead, director Kevin Heverin attempts to let it stand on its own. The set consists of a sleek '30s-style backdrop meant to evoke the Chicago World's Fair; otherwise the characters run around in a blank and propless nether world. Why? Because The Water Engine is a radio play. Mamet wrote it for National Public Radio in the '70s and later adapted it for the stage. The Actors Theater production tries to stuff parts of it back into the radio, with limited success. "The performance of a radio play within the theatrical performance was retained as a critical staging device," explains the press material, helpfully. It's helpful because the only solid hint that we're watching actors in a radio studio is a "LIVE" sign that sometimes flashes on.

Paul D'Addario plays the nervous young inventor, Charles Lang, with a strident and sometimes stilted desperation. He rushes into Morton Gross' law office and announces that he's built a motor that runs on hydrogen separated from distilled water. Gross is quiet for a moment. We should feel the revolutionary promise of the machine in his silences, but Dean Schreiner is too self-conscious as the lawyer; he attacks Mamet's rhythms instead of sinking into them. Other actors have the same problem: Carole Swann as Rita, the sister, and David Darnell as Oberman, the lawyer who kidnaps her (to force Lang to hand over the water engine plans), both act with forced urgency.

There tends to be exactly one way to get through Mamet's dialogue, and this cast doesn't find it. The main roles offer little to work with; the play is story-driven and willfully oblique. But Mamet's jaundiced take on our Century of Progress would be funny and even devastating if the central characters were played with as much energy and accuracy as some of the supporting roles. Jean Mullis is vivid and funny as Lang's neighbor, for example, and Armando DuBon Jr. makes an excellent elevator operator.

In John Sowles' production of the Beckett radio play All That Fall two years ago, there was no question we were inside a radio studio. The actors looked bored until their turns came to read lines into the microphone; a gravel pit and rickety bike were used for sound effects. This show has no microphone, no off-air actors making faces, and only the barest sound effects. The Water Engine suffers from a Concept -- "We're inside a radio, a World's Fair, and a city all at once," says the press release -- that waters down (sorry) all of the hinted-at dimensions.

It's coupled with a curtain-raiser, Mr. Happiness, which for some reason comes after the main show. The two are linked by the radio studio conceit: Mr. Happiness is a '30s-era radio personality who reads letters on the air with a dry, mellifluous, phony sophistication. B. David James gives a note-perfect performance, while the script is like a found object, making fun of radio advice shows by putting a normal one onstage. The slumberous sound and pace of early radio are faithfully reproduced, but nothing in Mamet's script is exaggerated or even funny. It's just comic from a distance, because Mr. Happiness himself -- lonely dispenser of clichéd, contradictory advice -- seems so glum.


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