Currently playing at Spooky Action Theater, The Water Engine, an early work from David Mamet (pre-Glengarry Glen Ross), centers around Charles Lang, an amateur inventor who invents an engine that runs on nothing but water. Set against the backdrop of the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair (whose tagline was “A Century of Progress”), Lang, knowing he’s hit the inventor’s jackpot, looks to patent the engine with the help of two attorneys. And, as usual when attorneys become involved, things quickly begin to unravel.
What’s interesting about The Water Engine is that it’s written as a radio play within a play. So as part of the cast performed as the radio performers in a 1930s radio station setting stage left, the action their setting is brought to life by the other actors elsewhere on stage. The most fun part to watch was the radio actors create foley sounds for the other actors to match. Linking the two is a voice-over from actor Lynn Sharp Spears, warning the viewer about the dangers of breaking a chain letter (although you might have to explain to anyone under 30 what a chain letter is, or was rather).
Ian LeValley gives a wonderfully balanced performance as Lang, whose desperation is so convincing it shows up in the worn-through soles of his shoes. Playing off Scott Sedar and Chuck Young (as lawyers Oberman and Gross – really Mamet? Gross? You couldn’t think of a better surname for an attorney?), who are each subtly evil, the audience knows long before he does that he’s dealing with two malevolent beings. Mary Egan as Lang’s naive sister Rita, is the only thing of any value to Lang and is inevitably threatened by Oberman and Gross.
The entire ensemble is solid, but it should be noted that Baakari Wilder brings a great presence to his roles (he plays several – not surprisingly, he’s listed in the program as having performed on Broadway in Bring In ‘Da Noise Bring In ‘Da Funk).
Utilizing an interesting set design, with a very effective use of a scrim, the action plays out smoothly, transitioning easily from the radio station to a newsroom to the World’s Fair. The action could have very easily become muddled, but thanks to the direction of Richard Henrich, that never happens.
Not to sound like an annoying chain letter, but this is your last weekend to check out the show (it closes on the 11th). You have been warned.
Running Time: 80 minutes including one intermission.
The Water Engine plays through March 11, 2012, at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th St NW, in Washington DC. Tickets can be purchased online.
For more information on The Water Engine and Spooky Action Theater, go to www.spookyaction.org.