THE WATER ENGINE
Profiles Performance Ensemble
at Red Bones Theatre
First produced by Chicago’s Saint Nicholas Theater Company in 1977, David Mamet’s The Water Engine is very much a play of its time–dark, cynical, brooding, paranoid, jangling with barely suppressed rage, but also spiritually numb and paralyzed by apathy and vague, unstated fears and disappointments. Though the play is set in Chicago in 1934, questions about America raised by Vietnam, Watergate, economic stagnation, and the energy crisis boil below the surface.
Written in the form of a radio play, The Water Engine concerns a Capra-esque little guy, the likable, soft-spoken immigrant inventor Charles Lang, who builds an engine that runs on water and for his trouble is persecuted and ultimately destroyed by representatives of one or more large, corrupt, unnamed corporations. If only, we’re invited to believe, Lang had been allowed to patent and market his water engine, America wouldn’t be nearly as polluted or as dependent on foreign oil as it is.
Yet today Mamet’s message–the individual doesn’t stand a chance against big institutions–feels like a cop-out. The problem is that Mamet isn’t the philosopher-playwright he seems to think he is, at least judging by the four collections of rambling, gassy essays about theater, film, and the importance of male bonding he’s published, including Writing in Restaurants and Some Freaks. He’s great at creating vivid characters, which is why the most despicable ones–the manipulative con men, the slick salesmen, the anything-for-a-buck producers–are inevitably his most fascinating. But whenever he tries to tackle the larger questions of life, he ends up concocting some beautiful but empty epigram: “The theater is not an imitation of anything, it is real theater,” or “The pursuit of Fashion is the attempt of the middle class to co-opt tragedy,” or “We live in a world ruined by Reason.” What do these clever phrases really mean?
In The Water Engine Mamet makes stabs at saying something deep about American society and our notion of progress–he stops the play dead twice for a mysterious discussion of chain letters, sets a number of scenes in the Century of Progress International Exposition–but ultimately proves much better at unsettling his audience (they’re out to get us) and playing on our prejudices (watch out for slick lawyers) than at changing our perceptions.
In his essay “Concerning The Water Engine” Mamet comes perilously close to revealing the emptiness of his play. In three rambling pages of one vague assertion after another he drops a few names (Tolstoy, Lindbergh, Kennedy), lightly touches on a number of topics discussed in his play (our distrust of newspapers, big business, large governmental organizations), and then, just as he seems to be building to a point, abruptly ends the essay. All foreplay, no action.
For all his talk, Mamet’s worldview is startlingly cartoonish: all corporations are evil, all common folks are dupes, and all little guys with great ideas are doomed. In Glengarry Glen Ross, for example, all salesmen are assholes and fools, all front-office types heartless ball busters. Yet in his best work his gift for creating three-dimensional characters saves him. Unfortunately, The Water Engine is populated with stock radio types–the kindly grocery-store owner, his soda-jerk son, the gruff-voiced bad man, the good-hearted immigrant of ambiguous ethnic origin–which makes the play feel all the more shallow.
In bringing The Water Engine to the stage, the folks at Profiles do as well as can be expected. The acting is up to their usual high standard–Joe Jahraus is especially good as the slick, evil lawyer–and the direction, by Jahraus and Darrell Christopher, is clear, clean, and unpretentious. I especially appreciated the fact that they never felt bound to present the whole play as an early-30s radio drama. Having established in the opening minutes that it’s being performed in a studio, with actors speaking their lines into microphones, they then move the microphones to the side and open the play out, which allows them to have the best of stage and radio theater: visible actors and a complete array of interesting sound effects. But even a superb production can’t make this early Mamet play seem deeper than the paper it’s printed on.