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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 67.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Machine dreams
An inventor gets his comeuppance in The Water Engine
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Bissen shows capitalism at its most malevolent.
Bissen shows capitalism at its most malevolent.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

David Mamet's The Water Engine was written in the late '70s as a radio play. Set in Chicago in 1934, it's about an ill-fated young inventor who creates a revolutionary engine that operates using water as its fuel. The play is an interesting, but not entirely successful, choice for the University Theatre as it continues to explore challenging works and avoid trite crowd-pleasers. In this case I found the requirements of Mamet's period piece to be somewhat cumbersome for the young cast.

As Charles Lang, the nave and optimistic factory worker/inventor, Andrew Dahl conveys sincerity with Jimmy Stewart inflections. Vera Varlamov is Rita, his idealistic sister who dreams of a farm in the country after the invention brings them wealth and fame. Varlamov is effective in portraying Rita's hopefulness, paranoia and finally panic.

When Lang attempts to get his invention patented, he enters into an agreement with a slick attorney (Peter Bissen) and his more sinister business associate (Ray Ready). These two represent capitalism at its most malevolent. Mamet juxtaposes different elements: a radio host with ominous tales of a chain letter; impassioned soapbox speeches; and a tour of the Hall of Science at the "Century of Progress" exposition, which underscores the hope that technology would elevate mankind.

Most of the cast play multiple roles, and some fare better than others when switching characters. A few of the portrayals are a bit broad, which might have been fine if we were listening on the radio instead of watching in a theater.

Director Tony Simotes has set the play in a radio studio, and both acts open with lighter, non-Mamet set pieces. We see commercials for hair and skin products and musical acts the Straw Hat Boys and the Gumdrops Girls, who perform classics like "Turkey in the Straw" and "Dream a Little Dream of Me." Matthew Sherwin, as a nimble Foley artist, is fun to watch in the background as he works on sound effects and provides original music.

Gail Brassard's excellent art deco set and authentic 1930s costumes successfully transported me to that era - a welcome change from the reality of post-Badger game traffic that made it particularly challenging to get to the Hemsley Theatre.

Appropriately, the final performance of The Water Engine (Oct. 13, 8 p.m.) will be broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Radio.

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