Let us trace the mechanics of David Mamet’s 1977 “The Water Engine” step by step:
A. It’s framed as a 1930s radio play. The capable actors in the Spooky Action Theater production (in the Universalist National Memorial Church basement) wander onto Vicki Davis’s old-fashioned studio set, scripts in hand; they speak upward toward the overhead microphone. A sound man works props to create effects — poured water, feet shuffling down an empty street, etc.
B. It’s an anti-corporate melodrama about a hapless factory worker named Charles Lang. He miraculously devises a water engine (surely a happy idea in the gas crisis era when Mamet wrote this) only to be crushed in the gears as the Big Boys muscle in.
Director Richard Henrich stages Lang’s story beyond the radio studio, in areas we can think of as downstage and stage right. (It’s metatheatrical, after all.) In these realms, gestures are broad and unnatural. Certain props are pantomimed — fists held to ears to suggest telephones, etc.
C. It’s a dream play, with the promises and threats of an old-fashioned chain letter coming at us via silky voice-over from Lynn Sharp Spears. The wording of the letter flows smoothly with the language at Chicago’s 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition, where the possibilities of the technological age are hawked in sage tones of reverence and promotion.
All this is designed to braid in your ear and in your mind’s eye as a pulpy, fevered vision of brute capitalism. But unless the complicated atmospherics are arresting enough to catapult you into Mamet’s altered state, the play comes off as fussy.
That’s how the Spooky Action exercise stands, despite a cast that initially seems neatly suited to the tale’s crisp 1930s rhythms. The most fun seems to be going on in the studio, where Scott Seder, as the director, gives subtle cues to the cast and plays the part of the corporate heavy with a coolly sinister voice. Slipping through multiple small roles, Hilary Kacser serves up a perfectly breathy Marilyn Monroe sound-alike for one character, then evokes the wide tones of Carol Channing for another.
The play-acting outside the studio is in a different key, more hard-boiled and awkwardly stylized. It’s no surprise that in this radio-conceived play, Henrich’s actors aren’t always sure what to do with their bodies. The exaggerated movements and slow-mo passages are ungainly.
The sturdy center and human face at the center of the phantasmagoria is Ian LeValley, whose intensely hopeful and haunted Lang is exactly right for a paranoid thriller. LeValley is a smart, powerful actor who has been convincing lately as period geniuses (he’s played Darwin twice, in vastly different projects). Here he delivers a pressurized turn, but he can’t save the show; the huff-and-puff storytelling creates too many sputters. Like water in an engine.
By David Mamet. Directed by Richard Henrich. Lights, Colin Dieck; costumes, Cat Martin; sound design, David Crandall. With Noah Mitchel, Laura Rocklyn, David Coyne, T. Griffin Jones, Max Jackson, Mary Egan, Baakari Wilder, John Brady and Chuck Young. About 90 minutes. Through March 11 at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW. Call 202-248-0301 or visit spookyaction.org.