Before the days of TV and computers Americans got their entertainment from listening to radio shows like Amos ‘N’ Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Jack Benny Program, and radio dramas like Lux Radio Theater and Lights Out. Playwright David Mamet’s The Water Engine – presented by Spooky Action Theater – takes us back to a simpler time in America when radio dramas ruled the airwaves and comedy was king.
The Water Engine tells the story of an inventor named Lang who has invented an engine that runs solely on water. He comes in contact with two men who want to buy his invention from him – and in the end – take credit for building it. The play is set against the backdrop of the 1933/34 Chicago World’s Fair, but the play is quite relevant for today’s audiences.
The Water Engine is a radio program within a story. As the radio performers tell the story stage left – the characters come to life on the other side of the stage – stage right. As you enter the theatre, Vicki Davis’s set design takes you the into a 1930s radio station. The studio has a period microphone and the little red On ‘Air light.’ There is also a striking backdrop of the Chicago World’s Fair.
The performances are first-rate. Ian LeValley (Lang) gives a gut-wrenching performance as the inventor, and as the show progresses and as he is being manipulated by others, the audience feels sympathy for him. His chemistry with Mr. Oberman (Scott Sedar) and Gross (Chuck Young) – the two con men – is really convincing, without it becoming too melodramatic. Sedar and Young are evil incarnate, sinister, and slimy, especially when they threaten Lang with harming his family.
Mary Egan (Lang’s sister Rita) gives an emotional performance as the sibling who is always looking out for her brother’s safety. Egan shows a whole range of emotions when Wallace and Gross kidnap her. I enjoyed Max Jackson’s (a 12 year-old performer) performance as The Newsboy. His presence in the opening scene where he delivers the newspaper to Lang, and when he plays Bernie – the son of one of the World’s Fair’s vendors – adds enthusiasm and spunkiness.
Baakari Wilder (World’s Fair Attendant and others) – who I had seen on Broadway in Bring In The Noise Bring In The Funk – has a beautifully acted scene with LaValley towards the end of the show, where Wilder consoles Lang.
The very talented ensemble plays everything from cops to thugs to newspaper writers in this crackling script. Director Richard Henrich deserves high praise for assembling such a talented ensemble, and for receiving wonderful performances from everyone in his cast.
Costumer Cat Martin’s wardrobe compliments the set with her period pinstriped suits and black and brown fedoras. Lighting Designer Colin Deick has created subtle and mood lighting, which helps to move the story along.
Thanks to Richard Henrich and Spooky Action Theater for bringing us this little ‘gem.’ This is David Mamet’s only script where there is no sexual innuendo and no profanity, so take the whole family with you to see The Water Engine.
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.