The Water Engine | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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The Water Engine

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Progress has seldom been presented as ironically as it is in David Mamet's early, arch one-act. Here the Depression-fed hopes and dreams of Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition contrast with the sordid cautionary tale of Charles Lang, a maverick inventor whose water engine proves too great a threat to the titans of industry--who decide just what form progress will take. To this tight hour-long murder mystery Mamet adds two alienating elements: he gives his piece the format of a radio play, scripting everything down to the last sound effect, and the concept of a chain letter, touted in "commercials." Woe betide anyone who breaks the chain--which is in effect what Lang does by imagining a technology that exploits nothing. And for that he pays a terrible price. Rich in 1934 detail (vintage radios, an authentic sound-effects booth, the clipped cadences of newsreel reporters), Jessica Thebus's staging for Steppenwolf's youth-oriented Arts Exchange program works equally well as moral melodrama and historical reconstruction. David Engel gives the hapless inventor a suitable paranoia; his fear chills us throughout. Equally tough work comes from Elizabeth Birnkrant as Lang's endangered girlfriend, Peter DeFaria as a grocer-philosopher, Patrick Dollymore as a veteran newshound, and Danny McCarthy as a thuggish defender of progress. Foley artist Matthew Callahan times his multiple sound effects to perfection. Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650. Through March 10: Saturdays, 11 AM. $10.

--Lawrence Bommer

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chuck Winans.

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