Players crank up Mamet's intriguing `Water Engine'
David Mamet's plays are usually hyper-masculine, enigmatic dramas overflowing with four-letter words and stilted, staccato dialogue.
This distinctive style inspires affection in some, aversion in others. But there is a branch of David Mamet's prodigious output for those who suffer Mametophobia.
Occasionally the writer calms down and mellows out. Of course everything is relative, and mellow Mamet is not quite as relaxed as, say, Perry Como. Still, works like his movie version of ``The Winslow Boy," his adaptations of Chekhov plays and his 1976 radio play ``The Water Engine" are, save for their intelligence, almost unrecognizable as Mamet's work.
``The Water Engine," now receiving a sharp production from Berkeley's Shotgun Players, is an especially interesting project.
Originally written for National Public Radio's ``Earplay" program, Mamet adapted the play to be done on stage in 1977. Because the show was only an hour long, he also added a 20-minute curtain raiser, a monologue called ``Mr. Happiness."
In his printed notes, Mamet gives future directors license to perform the plays either as radio dramas or as full-fledged plays or a combination of both.
Shotgun director Kent Nicholson has gone the combo route and with great success.
In ``Mr. Happiness," effectively performed by Clive Worsley, a man sits behind a microphone and dispenses advice and platitudes to his listening audience.
The most telling detail about this minor but entertaining piece, is that to keep his tongue limber and his indignation righteous, Mr. Happiness occasionally needs a tug from the flask in his breast pocket.
For ``The Water Engine," Nicholson continues the radio theme. Except for the microphones lining the perimeter of the edge of the stage of the Eighth Street Studio Theatre, the only piece of furniture is a big wood-encased radio.
The eight actors stand behind the microphones, and lighting designer Alex Lopex lights them dimly from behind so we can see their outlines but not their faces. This focuses our attention on their voices.
Amid an overlapping barrage of voices, the plot begins to emerge. It's 1934 and Chicago is hosting the Century of Progress exposition.
A young inventor (Michael Carroll) has devised an engine powered by water. He knows he has a hot commodity and is both evasive and protective as he attempts to secure a patent from two shady executives, Morton Gross (Worsley again) and Lawrence Oberman (Michael Ray Wisely).
The inventor's paranoia turns out to be well founded as deals and contracts turn into blackmail and kidnapping.
Though the play's scenes that are performed in full light and center stage flesh out the drama and pull us into the action, the show's best moments are those in the near-darkness, when it's the voices that matter.
Christian Schneider sits in a corner of the theater providing live foley, or sound effects, which make the radio aspect of the show even more evocative. When the evil lawyer is walking the inventor through the park, we hear their footsteps on the pavement. We also hear doors opening and closing, factory whistles sounding and telephones ringing.
Mamet, who only uses one mild curse word here, seems to be making some points about the uneasy relationship between scientific progress and the evils of capitalism.
But the truth is, without the intriguing and highly nostalgic gimmick of blending radio drama with the presentational form, ``The Water Engine" wouldn't have much horsepower.
Mamet himself beefed up the plot and added characters for the 1992 TV movie version starring William H. Macy and Joe Mantegna.
But given a proficient cast of actors, most of whom are playing at least three roles, and a nicely detailed production, ``The Water Engine," along with ``Mr. Happiness," makes for a diverting double bill.
Okay, I'm probably not telling you anything you don't already know, but as a culture, we're decidedly more comfortable with pictures than with words. You need only take a look at any of these baffling, unbelievably arty car commercials, or film trailers, or print ads in magazines. It's a source of continual fascination to this critic that we don't mind if pictures are high-concept and beautiful and hard to understand, but if language, God forbid, starts to get long and weird and highfalutin, we begin to squirm in our seats. When was the last time you heard original poetry as advertising copy?
But unlike film or television, theater (as the Shotgun Players' program notes correctly observe) has historically been essentially about audiences listening to words, rather than becoming consumed with what bright visual images are being beamed at us. Few contemporary playwrights believe in the power of the spoken word quite as much as David Mamet, master of the quiet, highly charged verbal confrontation. Mamet's been much debated in the past decade, coming under fire particularly for various dabblings in misogyny, which made Oleanna, his 1993 play about the ambiguities involved in sexual harassment, particularly controversial. But whether or not his career-long interest in the tough attitude of "men's men" interests you, almost anyone interested in working playwrights today will cite Mamet as above all a master wordsmith who picks up tricks from Harold Pinter and blue-collar Midwestern speech patterns.
Any hip-hop artist or slam poet could tell us that sometimes how words are spoken is more important than what they actually mean. But the particular kind of verbal music in which Mamet is interested is rooted in how real people talk. He likes to take naturalistic verbal mannerisms -ums, uhs, repetitions, curse words -and stylize them into a kind of percussive music. Characters interrupt one another, or overlap their lines of dialogue in discordant harmonies. The quirks of everyday language become more than just a medium, a kind of window dressing for meaning. For Mamet, in plays such as American Buffalo (1977), Speed-the-Plow (1988), or Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), they're a central part of the message.
The Shotgun Players' double helping of Mamet, consisting of the one-acts Mr. Happiness and The Water Engine, is a celebration of spoken language. Director Kent Nicholson (the man behind last year's critically acclaimed Swimming in the Shallows) uses the era of radio to remind us of times when mass audiences gathered around to actually listen. Mr. Happiness is the on-air monologue of a radio announcer. Mamet's 1977 piece The Water Engine was originally written for broadcast on National Public Radio, but was later retooled into a stage play. And as staged by the Shotgun Players, both pieces still ask audience members to lean forward, prick up their ears, and actively pay attention to the flow of words.
This evening of language would be worth it if only for its outrageously good gem of a curtain raiser. Said to have been inspired by the ubiquitous radio personality Paul Harvey, Mr. Happiness reveals a 1930s radio host (Clive Worsley) who dispenses elegantly phrased, cliché-laden advice in response to listeners' letters. Of course, the irony is that Mr. Happiness, answering depressingly commonplace questions (Should I leave my wife? How do I get this girl to like me?), is anything but happy. Speaking in a pat, paternal Phil-Hartman-esque tone, he seems to alternate between genuinely believing that his pretentious, American-values-laden advice can help, and feeling downright absurd-disquieted by the magnitude of American unhappiness. The excellent Worsley gives this formal language a lyrical lilt without exaggerating. He speaks at the leisurely, singsong pace of old-time radio, mouthing each grandiloquent syllable with deliberate relish (or disgust). Not exactly comedy and not quite tragedy, it's an ambivalent-and splendid-ten-minute opener.
And it leads nicely into the fascinating centerpiece, The Water Engine. This longer one-act, once made into a 1992 cable television movie starring Mamet regular William H. Macy, takes place against the backdrop of the 1934 Chicago World's Fair-which had a "Century of Progress" theme. A factory worker, Charles Lang (Michael Carroll), invents an engine that can run on water-cue the screams of the oil industry here-and he brings his new invention to a patent lawyer (Worsley) who promptly involves his malevolent partner (Michael Ray Wisely).
As is typical for Mamet, it's a dark, disorienting tragedy with surprisingly rigid moral underpinnings. Carroll is earnest and nervous as the pure, working-class hero, supporting his blind sister (Mary Eaton Fairfield). He cautiously mistrusts the lawyers and corporate interests who, presumably protecting the oil industry, begin to manipulate him, but his awareness of his own vulnerability doesn't appear to help him out too much. The David-against-Goliath story, framed like a radio potboiler, is not meant to be subtle commentary, of course. But just in case you were unclear on any of the subtext, the action is interwoven with the sounds of fervent socialist speeches, the Century of Progress tour guide's cheery description of science ("the concrete poetry of humankind"), and a solemn radio broadcast about a fateful chain letter that either kills people or makes them very rich.
There's only one real set piece: an old-fashioned radio, center stage, which is also present for Mr. Happiness. At first, it seems as though the performance will actually be a live radio show. In dim lighting, actors in 1930s costumes stand in a semicircle, speaking their lines directly into microphones without stage movement. A live foley guy makes clunky sound effects when these are called for. But as the action picks up, actors occasionally drift away from their microphones and enter an onstage scene, interacting with others for a few lines, their faces in shadow, before resuming their places at the microphone. The effect of this genre-blurring is that we're constantly uneasy: Is it reality, or is it a radio broadcast? Which characters are speaking on the air, and which are just speaking? For a play in which so much revolves around illusion, deception, and the process of trust, it's an effective device.
There's actually a lot that's effective about The Water Engine. Director Nicholson has crafted a very tight drama here, with a distinct sense of forward momentum, suspense, and some strong performances, especially from Carroll, Worsley, and Boomer Hurwitz as the teenage electronics buff who befriends Lang. There's admirable verbal precision from the entire cast, in fact, who deliver Mamet's carefully choreographed lines with a natural ease, making the deliberate interruptions and overlaps seem nearly accidental. Production design is elegant and simple, with shadowy lighting and evocative costumes.
But the end of Mamet's play comes awfully easy, and it left this critic, at least, wishing for just a little more complexity-just one more plot twist, maybe? This may be especially because it covers much of the same ground as Mamet's 1998 film The Spanish Prisoner, which was set in the 1990s with a similar plot line-an elaborate con job played on the naïve inventor of a corporate "process" that his bosses want to keep secret. Both are based on the theme of exploitation of the individual by shadowy corporate entities. They've got some similar methods of generating suspense, too: Who can be trusted? Is everyone what they claim to be? However, it's impossible not to observe that The Water Engine isn't quite as sophisticated in its plot machinations as The Spanish Prisoner. In fact, it feels a little like it's building up to a Spanish Prisoner-style revelation, but never quite makes it.
But this doesn't really affect the pleasure of listening to the language in The Water Engine, and fortunately this seems to be Nicholson's first priority. Dialogue is spoken and framed so that one can appreciate everything tense and edgy about Mamet's characteristically fast, clipped repetitive dialogue: "Do you have the plans?" "I have them." "Do you have them with you?" "I have them." But for anyone who thinks of Mamet as only the profanity-happy mind behind Glengarry Glen Ross, we dip into lovely, dated 1930s-style phrasing: "witness the simple grace and eternal power of a bargain made and kept."
And in the end, it's an interesting and provocative short night of theater-another commendably solid effort from Kent Nicholson and the spot-on Shotgun Players. Of course, there's not a single flame-red costume or moving set piece to dazzle your eye. But there's plenty of well-spoken Mamet to keep your ears, at least, titillated-and perked up for what happens next.
Drowning in Water
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.