Lakeboat | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Inn Town Players

David Mamet's a Big Name now, there's no denying it. Broadway hit, Pulitzer prize, Oscar nomination--he's a certified success. I've even come across a book of criticism devoted exclusively to the guy's work. That's the kind of treatment reserved for bona fide creators of literature. Everything Mamet writes for the rest of his life will be treated like another tablet handed down from the cultural mountaintop.

Yet once upon a time, Mamet was just another would-be Chicago playwright. The scripts he produced then, like the work of countless other aspiring playwrights today, were assumed to be trifles, and would probably have been forgotten if their author hadn't gone on to become the David Mamet.

But those scripts were not trifles, as the Inn Town Players' production of Lakeboat demonstrates. Sure, the play survives on the strength of Mamet's later work, but his later work also helps us see the craftsmanship and depth of this early effort.

From the start, Mamet was experimenting with style and structure, as Lakeboat demonstrates. There's lots of the blunt, crude dialogue that has become his trademark. The play also reveals his preoccupation with personal and social corruption--themes that permeate virtually all of his plays.

Instead of a narrative, the play offers a collection of episodes in an apparently random arrangement. All of Mamet's early work is structured this way--Lakeboat (written in 1970 and revised for a 1979 production at the Milwaukee Repertory), Duck Variations (1972), Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1973). Mamet used to be a busboy at Second City, where short, punchy skits are separated by blackouts, and it's obvious the technique impressed him deeply.

With this technique Mamet is asserting his belief that character is action. Mamet told C.W.E. Bigsby (the author of the study mentioned earlier) that "in the theater, if you have to use any narration, you're not doing your job." And in all of Mamet's work, characters rarely explain what they're doing. They just talk, and in talking they reveal what they are, and what they are is the plot.

Does it begin to sound as though Lakeboat is nothing more than acting exercises collected for a scene class? It's probably true that if Mamet weren't a certified master, this play would be dismissed as trivial. There's little connection between the incidents presented. The only unifying element is Dale, a 19-year-old seaman who, like Mamet at that age, gets a job on a Great Lakes cargo boat and wanders, wide-eyed and innocent, among the seasoned sailors, serving as the receptacle for their long-winded fabrications.

But there is something going on here. These men are dispossessed. Their lives are as repetitious and dull as the endless circuit their boat makes on the Great Lakes. Much of their conversation is consumed by elaborate speculations on what happened to the ship's cook, who apparently was mugged the night before. The first line of the play is delivered by a burly pier man who asks Dale, "Did you hear about Skippy and the new kid?" As the play progresses, this dull story begins to assume epic proportions. Soon there are hints of mob involvement and gory descriptions of the beating the kid received. These men are entertaining themselves by telling stories to each other, but more than that they're trying to manufacture some excitement that will counteract the boredom engulfing them.

And the boredom is suffocating. The fireman explains to Dale, "I gotta watch the two gauges. Four actually. We got the two main, they're the two you gotta watch, and the two auxiliary . . . . But you gotta keep your eye on those two main, because if they go, well . . . . I mean if that main goes, if she goes redline, you're fucking fucked."

The fireman implies that the survival of the ship rests in his hands, but in fact he has very little responsibility. If he notices something irregular on the gauges, "I don't do nothing!" he explains. "I don't do a damn nothing. I'm not supposed to touch a thing. I shut down whichever blows, larboard or starboard. I shut down and I call the bridge and I call in the chief, in that order."

The lives of these men, like their conversations, revolve around drinking and sex. In one scene, two seamen, Stan and Joe, stand on deck discussing their hangovers while guzzling cans of beer. And Fred, another seaman, delivers one of the most depressing accounts of sexual conquest I've ever heard. "The way to get laid is to treat them like shit," he explains to Dale. "Truer words have never been spoken. And this has been tested by better men than you or me."

Lizabeth Sipes directs these scenes with a grim flatness that accentuates the onboard monotony, but the individual performances have enough animation and detail to counteract the dullness. Mik Scriba, tall and muscular, plays Stan as a vacant-faced working stiff too dim to know how bored he really is. Cedric Young gives Joe a sharper edge, especially in later scenes when Joe suspects he's getting sick. Richard Burton Brown is wonderfully droll and lifeless as the gauge-watching fireman. Jerry Rooney, with his hair cut down to a stubble, makes Collins, the second mate, seem slightly demonic. Ken Beider delivers Fred's sex tips with the nonchalance typical of insensitive boors. And Peter DeFaria, who actually looks a bit like a young David Mamet, gives Dale the intimidated agreeableness of a young man eager to be accepted.

Sipes, a cofounder of Inn Town Players, seems to have an affinity for gritty naturalism. Last year, during the group's premiere season, she directed impressive productions of Streamers, a violent drama about young soldiers bound for Vietnam, and of Mamet's American Buffalo, set in a junk shop where three thugs are plotting a crime. Lakeboat--another play involving only men--is similarly grim, but Sipes is not fooled by the simplicity of the surface. She is able to bring out the images and issues that simmer just below it, and for a playwright like Mamet, that's essential. Without a director attuned to the themes he weaves into the background of his plays, Mamet's work--especially the early work--can be easily mistaken for empty transcriptions of crude street lingo. And that is not the talent that made him a Big Name.

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