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A CurtainUp Review

The Water Engine

Oberman: Who said that if every man just
acted in his own best interests, this would be paradise on Earth?

Rita: They 're going to get him now. The whole thing will go down. It all goes down when we have given up the things we own.
Announcer: Another chapter, yes, of Century of Progress!

The Water Engine as I remember it at the Public Theater over twenty years ago didn't have any of the chrome and glass Art Deco gloss of the handsomely mounted revival that marks the beginning of the Atlantic Theater's tribute to one of its co-founder, playwright David Mamet. The story is the same: Charles Lang, a hapless young inventor of an engine that runs on water becomes caught up in a Kafkaesque nightmare when he tries to patent his invention. The structure remains that of a play within a radio play overlayed with soap box speeches from Bug House Square, Chicago's equivalent of Hyde Park and an announcer in another area of the radio station keeps predicting disaster for all who fail to keep a chain letter -- an obvious echoing the threats and promises of the hoodlum-like lawyers, Martin Gross and Lawrence Oberman. (Note the metaphorical names-- Oberman is a translation of the German for uebermensch or super man).

Since writing this all too predictable morality tale, David Mamet's voice has matured and ripened and his name has become an adjective defining a cadence particular to his dialogue, it is an apt choice to launch this retrospective (I use the term loosely since the schedule of upcoming plays is far from comprehensive). The Mametian cadence is there in Lang's plainspeak and in the glib, oily beat of Gross and Oberman who may be seen as forefathers of familiar snakes in the grass of Mamet's fictive landscape.

The large cast of actors (12 in all) are well-versed in the Mamet venacular. What's more, all but Steven Goldstein who plays Charles Lang and Mary McCann who plays his sister, do double duty in ensemble parts. And yet, while Goldstein's Lang is convincingly earnest and desperate, and Peter Jacobson and Jordan Lage play Gross and Oberman with the requisite reptilian flair, this revival seems to lack the energy needed to firmly tie its thematic threads together -- the days of the radio, dreams in the midst of a Depression epitomized by the Chicago World's Fair's A Century of Progress pavilion and young Lang's invention. While the scene when Gross and Oberman try to browbeat Lang into trusting them with his plans is powerful, the intriguing radio drama structure deteriorates into a thriller with few thrills.

What we have is a first rate physical production of a minor play by a major playwright (while the Public Theater production moved to Broadway it only lasted there for a couple of weeks). Walt Spangler's set more than the play or the players, beautifully evokes the radio station and the Chicago circa 1933 outside. With an able assist from Robert Perry's lighting, we also have a vivid sense of the machinery of the factory whose grinding confinement Lang hopes to escape.

Mr. Happiness which lasts just twenty minutes is an apt curtain raiser since it too is set in a 1930s radio station. The title character, played with admirable restraint by Bob Balaban, is a precursor today's call-in shows. Mr. Happiness who might well be named Mr. Platitude, still relies on snail mail to connect with his audience. For senior citizens in the audience will recall a real broadcaster named Mr. Anthony, fondly known as Mr. Agony. This short pastiche has its comic moments but would be more amusing at half the length.

With: Company members Steven Goldstein, Jordan Lage, Mary McCann; and guest artists Peter Jacobson, Maggie Kiley, Jody Lambert, Peter Maloney, Carl J. Matusovich, Kelly Maurer, Josh Stamberg and MaryAnn Urbano
MR. HAPPINESS, one-act curtain raiser
starring Bob Balaban

by David Mamet
Directed by Karen Kohlhaas.

Set Design: Walt Spangler
Lighting Design: Robert Perry
Costume Design: Rick Gradone Sound Design: Andrew Keister
Running time:
Atlantic Theater Company, 338 W. 20th St. (8th/9th Avs), 645-1242. Performances from 9/29/99; opening 10/21/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/21/99 performance

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