THE WATER ENGINE
Gremlin Theatre at the Loading Dock
through December 16
The World's Fair of 1933-34 in Chicago billed itself (with an utter lack of irony; the postmodern rot would take decades to settle in) as a celebration of "A Century of Progress." The order of the day was to exalt all the lovely products of human ingenuity, with our drive for mechanical contrivances and shiny surfaces. Brimming beneath the surface was, of course, the dark side of human nature that would spring forth within the decade—and put a serious crimp in easy notions of "progress."
David Mamet's early play The Water Engine gives a good shaking to the old American homilies about amelioration, and it's telling that it was written in the 1970s, which might have been the last time hardy cynicism was such a right-thinking response to the national culture. Written and staged here by Gremlin Theatre as a radio play, it has the feel of a period piece but possesses a lasting relevance that might well have surprised its author at the time he wrote it.
First, the nine players mill onto the set while the house lights are still up. The scene is Chicago's WGN Radio in 1934, and the actors in period dress cluster and chat, while taking possession of the sheets of dialogue they will be reading into a series of microphones at the front of the stage. It's a disarming way to get things going, though we're left blissfully unencumbered by who these radio performers are when the mics are turned off—it's the content of the play within the play that matters most.
That action concerns Charles Lang (Matt Rein), a taciturn laborer who has somehow devised an engine that runs by extracting hydrogen from distilled water. First, this beats pretty much anything on display down the road at the World's Fair (which plays its own role in the play's action). Second, it's clear from the outset that Charles isn't going to achieve his well-deserved fame and fortune for liberating us from petroleum dependency before the term was even invented.
Charles's first mistake is approaching lawyer Gross (Ryan Parker Knox), who subsequently enlists the oily, quasi-Teutonic Oberman (Sam L. Landman). It turns out that, while there are presumably plenty of people who would pay a fortune for Lang's machine, there are also those who would like to take it from him. Or destroy it. Or maybe even both.
Mind you, all of this occurs in Mamet's realm of meta-fiction; in reality, actors are reading lines, then discarding spent sheets of script to the floor. Yet Sarah Gioia's direction walks an able line, with the players temporarily losing themselves in their roles without indulging in hamminess or the tinge of pulp. And as the world closes in on Charles, something akin to sympathy develops for him.
Not that Mamet felt the same way, not when there were thematic nails to be driven home (actually, his dialogue here is far less hammer-like than in later years, with mainly Charles's syllable-stingy dialogue showing signs of what was to come). Interspersed with Charles's story, for instance, are speeches extolling the virtues of chain letters (and the dire fate befalling those who break them). For other stretches, we're treated to a soap-box orator (Bob Malos) who pretty much critiques the notion of the nation state and calls for a sort of trans-human solidarity.
So what we're dealing with here is faith, deception, illusion, and the cruel unfairness of a world high on its own bullshit—not entirely unfamiliar territory for Mamet, but here the period allegory reminds us that thoughts of lost innocence might be just another form of bad faith (no innocence to lose, in other words). It's a testament to the clarity of this one-hour show, based far more in words than in action, that it works both as entertainment and as something weightier. By the end, we're left with a sense of disdain for the notions of improvement and ingenuity, and then the onstage studio goes dark. So much for inventing a way to rise above our basic nature.