Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 239-6200, through Nov. 21.
Watery Myths David Mamet is not usually thought of as a political playwright. None of his plays deal with topical issues purely for their own sake, and he has reiterated his abhorrence of explicit polemicism in drama on numerous occasions. Now, any definition of political theater that has no room for Glengarry Glen Ross or Speed-the-Plow (or Waiting for Godot or Richard Foreman's Paradise Hotel, for that matter) is uselessly narrow to my mind, but everyone understands what is usually meant by the honorific "political" when it comes to theater: it means writing like Brecht's. As it happens, Mamet himself once tried his hand at a Brechtian political parable, tailoring it to his own esthetic, and the result was a somewhat rough-edged drama of enduring beauty, now receiving a proud revival as the opening show of the Atlantic Theater Company's all-Mamet 15th-anniversary season.
Originally written as a radio play in 1977, The Water Engine was adapted by the author into a stage play in 1978. It dates from the period before Mamet first went to Hollywood, when he hadn't yet settled on suspense built around psychological and plot twists as an essential feature of his scripts. Subtitled "An American Fable," The Water Engine is a melodramatic, almost cartoonish allegory about the American myths of progress and self-invention?a blast at certain depredations of monopoly capitalism that was clearly cooking in his mind during the American bicentennial celebrations and is, if anything, more relevant in today's environment of anticompetitive mega-mergers and out-of-control executive salaries than it was then.
The setting is 1934 Chicago. In his spare time, a punch-press operator named Charles Lang has invented an engine that runs only on distilled water, and he contacts a lawyer named Gross to help him patent it. Gross betrays him to big business (represented by another slimy lawyer named Oberman), which is in league with the police, and these forces try to steal and extort the engine from him. When he resists, he and his sister Rita are hunted down, beaten and killed. As many critics have pointed out, this story, taken by itself, is like a weak parody of 1930s social-protest drama.
There's much more going on in The Water Engine, though. The stage, for one thing, is outfitted as a 1930s radio studio, which emphasizes the "acted" nature of even the most realistic scenes, and this histrionic action is itself played out against the background of the Century of Progress Exposition, represented by a Barnumesque "Barker" who occasionally extols technological discovery ("the concrete poetry of Humankind") and then trails off into platitudes ("Much is known and much will yet be known, and much will not be known"). Another "announcer" voice occasionally speaks scare-tactic passages from a chain letter, warning listeners not to "break the chain," only it's never clear whether that chain is a figure for commerce (seen as a pyramid scheme that excludes Lang), or Lang's sort of heroic individualism that insists that capitalists play by their own rules.
The naive us-them schema of Lang's story, in other words, is constantly complicated by its manner of presentation and the events rushing around it, which suggest that no one is wholly innocent because the system that destroys this man is perpetuated by mythic fictions held dear by him and nearly everyone else. As still another interrupting voice asks at the climax, a soapbox speaker from Bughouse Square: "What happened to this nation? Or did it ever exist?... I say it does not exist. And I say that it never existed. It was all but a myth. A great dream of avarice... The dream of a Gentleman Farmer."
Director Karen Kohlhaas has captured this atmosphere of blithe complicity with a cool elegance and confidence that smoothes over many of the rough edges. The set designed by Walt Spangler, for instance, is a sleek, curvy-chrome, art deco enclosure that (like countless modern environments from certain shopping malls to the New Times Square to the Internet) entraps everyone in a nebula of technological optimism. The water engine itself (a wonderfully guileless fantasy whose splendid elemental resonance Brecht would have envied) is operated only in mime while a sound-effects person, silhouetted at an upstage workbench, provides clanks, ratchets and whirrs. This mime makes the engine read as a trope for creative invention, which, like nearly everything else in the play, then cuts two ways. The Daily News reporter whom Lang calls for help, for instance?played with easy, brash suaveness by Josh Stamberg?talks impressively about the role of newspapers in a free society and really does seem to care, yet he also has no problem in churning out logrolling puff to fill a column: "the West is Golden with the promise of prosperity to come."
The rest of the cast is consistently good as well. Steven Goldstein plays Lang as a stubby little pinion of earnest energy, wisely leaving it to others to project the ironies that his character doesn't really contain. Similarly, Mary McCann doesn't overcomplicate the sweet-victim role of Rita, but manages to give her a refreshingly sensible edge; here she is played as blind and hence physically dependent on Lang. The play's final scene, in which the blueprints for the water engine end up in safe hands (like Galileo's secretly written Discorsi in the end of Brecht's Galileo), benefits enormously from the performances of Peter Maloney and Carl J. Matusovich, playing the candy-store owner Mr. Wallace and his boy Bernie. Their poignantly uncomprehending expressions at the final fade-out ensure that no one leaves this production entirely certain that better justice will prevail in the long run.
We are living today (perhaps you noticed) in a bizarrely self-narcotized era, when our nation's wealth is being concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority to a degree that even the last century's robber barons would've thought unimaginable, but the majority public sits idly by, docilely content with its crumbs because they're ever so slightly larger than its parents' crumbs were. We continue to elect real Grosses and Obermans by the hundreds, convinced of the need to protect billionaires at our own expense because, after all, each of us might be a billionaire someday. For these reasons alone, I'm delighted to see The Water Engine given vivid new life by a fine ensemble.
Having said that, however, I hasten to add that I'm also glad that Mamet bade farewell to the Brechtian parable after this work. The truth is, this form?whose odor of didacticism can never be quite purged by complicating ironies?always had more limited theatrical potential than its advocates claimed, and whatever was left to milk from it in the media age Mamet realized in this piece. Moreover, his plays from the 1980s and 90s (and some others from the 1970s) amply demonstrated that his storytelling instincts are better served by more truly suspenseful plots and characters of greater psychological complexity; they have allowed him to write about these same American myths with even greater power and insight. I wish I could report that the curtain-raiser Mr. Happiness was as delightful as The Water Engine. Unfortunately, this 17-minute monologue by a smug radio host who offers stern paternalistic advice to letter-writers hasn't aged nearly as well as its companion piece. The main reason is that every American today, from the lowly intern to the President, is a potential talk-show host, whereas in 1978 that self-promotional conceit still carried overtones of a weird form of self-congratulation. The performer Bob Balaban is fine as Mamet's nerdy and vaguely Krapp-like phrasemaker, but his acting mitigates none of the dated, flat-footed and obvious aspects of the monologue.
Showy Lady Slipper by Richard Maxwell P.S. 122, 150 1st Ave. (9th St.), 477-5288, through Nov. 14.
Over the past few years, the playwright and director Richard Maxwell has acquired a substantial downtown following with a series of shows that feature more or less directionless plots, characters who ramble within the context of selected cliches and actors who struggle to maintain utterly affectless demeanors. Maxwell seems to be after a purified theatrical neutrality in which neither his text nor his performers will interfere with the free projection of multiple meanings by spectators. In House and Cowboys and Indians (cowritten with Jim Strahs), this technique came off as a dryly intelligent satirical esthetic, because the neutrality in both pieces was set against iconic concepts or states of mind (such as "house" or "cowboy"). In Showy Lady Slipper, by contrast, there are no such concepts, and the piece consequently feels too simplistically weightless and barren.
According to the press release, Maxwell got the idea for this play (whose title is the name of a flower, never mentioned or alluded to) by overhearing women converse on the subway. He somewhat armchairishly discovered that, unlike males, females care "less about the subject and more about the act of conversing" and decided to create a piece around the idea of "talking with no clear objective."
The play presents three women standing around talking aimlessly about such trivia as vacations, men, music and money, until one of them goes out with another's boyfriend and then a phone-caller reports that he has been killed in an accident. Played only on a few chairs set against a painted backdrop depicting a simple room, the action also includes pretty, melodic country-rock songs written by Maxwell and accompanied by guitar and bass, and these read in the end as lapses of confidence?incongruously conventional attempts to pump energy and air into a suffocating and seriously condescending action.