Blue Room concludes its fall season with Mamet’s Engine.
Radio plays enacted live on stage seldom fail to work for me. Immediately, there is a sense of levels: The activities the actors play out in the story are often in stark contrast with what is actually going on between them in the studio. The Blue Room raises the bar another notch with its current production of David Mamet’s mid-'70s radio play, The Water Engine.
Set in the ‘30s, the story follows Charles Lang, a Chicago-area punch-press operator who figures out how to release hydrogen from water molecules, soon creating an engine that costs virtually nothing to operate. He naturally approaches a patent attorney to get his invention protected. But the attorney isn’t all he seems and steers Lang into a nightmarish web of deceit, double-dealings, kidnapping and murder. The auto industry doesn’t want an engine that runs on water, and it and its minions will do anything to buy or bury the threat.
Each member of the large, talented cast plays multiple characters, including the “actors” portraying those characters. Directors Belden and Hilsee have choreographed enjoyable pantomimes for the actors to illustrate what their genuine relationships are within their radio troupe. What kicks this production up another notch is having the characters step from around their vintage microphones to play out scenes as listeners might imagine them. The fluidity of movement during these transitions is remarkable. Reinforcing the ‘30s atmosphere is Amber Miller’s terrific art deco radio studio set, with its elevated control room in the back. The set looks so authentic, I wanted to hang out there and pitch adventure-serial ideas to the troupe. Costumes are good, too.
Mamet’s short companion piece Mr. Happiness opened the show. It deals pointedly with a disingenuous radio advice-giver who falls back on clichés instead of answering his listeners’ letters honestly.