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The Water Engine


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Playhouse, at Covenant Methodist Church.

David Mamet's 1977 "radio play" is fueled by a pungent central irony. This anti-capitalist tale is told via a 1934 broadcast from the Hall of Science during Chicago's Century of Progress world's fair, which celebrated technological advance as the path to freedom "as we rush on." The sardonic radio script, however, relates a very unprogressive parable about Charles Lang, the hapless inventor of an engine that runs on water. Predictably, Lang is stalked and eliminated by mysterious agents who fear his dangerous innovation. Clearly, if you're big enough, you can fight progress. Or as an announcer unctuously puts it, "We are characters within a dream of industry."

Mamet contrasts the promotional blather of a world exposition with the panic of Lang, the doomed benefactor of mankind, and his endangered wife. He also throws in tedious allusions to a chain letter that symbolizes our interconnectedness, implying that the malefactors who destroy Charles Lang are breaking faith with the future.

Tim Sullens's earnest but misguided Playhouse revival misses the critical contrast between the empty hucksterism and the justified paranoia. This strangely listless, sinisterly sly, clumsily timed staging announces doom too easily. Robert Poe's self-effacing inventor seems beaten from his first entrance, while as his wife Amanda Clower is often so enervated as to be inaudible. We never savor the creepy contradiction of a bleakly cautionary tale ebulliently told in a major--and increasingly false--key.

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