The Atlantic Theater Co. kicks off its season devoted to company co-founder David Mamet with a pair of the playwright’s more unconventional works, the short solo play “Mr. Happiness” and the period one-acter “The Water Engine.” While Bob Balaban gives a quietly mesmerizing performance in the haunting “Mr. Happiness,” Karen Kohlhaas’ production of “The Water Engine” doesn’t make a strong case for this elusive, allusive play. The double bill will chiefly appeal to Mamet aficionados eager for a look at these infrequently staged pieces.
Both plays are infused with an affection for the days when radio was a dominant force in American culture. In “Mr. Happiness,” which was written to accompany the (brief) Broadway stand of “The Water Engine” in 1978, Balaban portrays a radio advice columnist softly dispatching words of encouragement and admonition to lonely listeners. His avuncular tone fuses the tender and the stern, the reproving and the supportive. The play casts an unsettling spell: Is Mr. Happiness a benevolent or malevolent force in the lives of his listeners? The homely, authentic heartaches that spill from the letters he reads make it a poignant, disturbing question.
“The Water Engine” is a thematically ambitious, stylistically audacious tribute to the dramas that once kept listeners rooted to their living room carpets night after night. Mamet’s conceit intriguingly fuses the imagination of the listener with the lives of the performers: We see the radio studio and the actors standing at microphones — with a single man hovering in the background providing all the sound effects — but we also see the drama as it might unfold in the mind of the audience, with the actors fully inhabiting their roles, seemingly ignorant of the dangling microphones.
The melodrama being enacted is a somewhat facile little parable about a man crushed by the powers of corporate interests. The time is 1933, the place Chicago, which is hosting the World’s Fair and celebrating the city’s centenary under the optimistic banner “A Century of Progress” (the words provide an ironic title for the action below in Walt Spangler’s sleek deco set).
Charles Lang (Steven Goldstein), a humble everyman who lives with his blind sister and works in a factory, seeks out a lawyer to help him patent his invention, an engine that runs on water alone. But the lawyer is allied with the interests of the mysterious powers for whom this miraculous invention would be financially disastrous (read corporate America), and Lang soon finds himself hunted by the police.
Mamet underscores his story with a variety of evocative touches — a woman promoting the life-saving powers of a chain letter, the rantings of anarchists in Chicago’s Bughouse Square — to create a kaleidoscopic, surrealistic picture of a particular time and place.
It’s an odd play, more style than substance, and thus requiring a perfect mastery of mood. Unfortunately Kohlhaas and her cast haven’t found the right blend of period authenticity and Mametian mysteriousness to keep it aloft. The writing, which is often as stylized as the concept, too often comes off as arch and aridly portentous. The effect is to expose the ponderousness of Mamet’s ironies about a culture that celebrates the idea of progress even as its rulers may seek to oppress the fact of it.