As soon as you read the program note stating that David Mamet's "The Water Engine" started out as a radio play, you realize it's going to differ in at least one respect from much of the playwright's recent work. The language is going to be clean.
Then you begin to wonder how an "air play" will translate to the stage. However, Impossible Industrial Action (IIA) -- whose production is the inaugural work in the Theatre Project's new program of local residencies -- is using a script that was adapted by Mamet and produced on Broadway in 1978. So it can be done, and, under Tony Tsendeas' direction, IIA is doing it quite well indeed.
And, though the language is a far cry from the playwright's trademark profanity, in a more important respect -- thematically -- the play is typical Mamet. Set in Chicago in 1934 during the Century of Progress Exposition, the play revolves around an amateur inventor named Charles Lang who devises an engine fueled solely by water. When Lang tries to get his machine patented, big business attempts first to buy it, then steal it, and eventually resorts to more dangerous tactics.
In other words, this is another of Mamet's visions of the corrupt business world, a theme that, to varying degrees, characterizes his work from "American Buffalo" to "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Speed-the-Plow." And, as in those plays, the little guy barely stands a chance.
Although this theme is in keeping with IIA's politics, in another respect, the play is an unlikely choice. After all, IIA specializes in multi-media productions, and a former radio play might seem limited in that respect.
Undoubtedly, part of the appeal was Mamet's unusual adaptation. Instead of merely dramatizing the action, he allows it to move fluidly from an on-stage radio booth to the stage. For example, an actor standing at a microphone in the studio reads part of a scene while the rest is simultaneously acted out. This is an intriguing technique, and it is adeptly handled here. However, IIA has added another level -- slides projected on a screen at the rear of Thomas E. Cole's impressive period set; unfortunately, this adds little and frequently distracts.
The performances are assured and well-modulated. Paul Wright makes an honest and trusting Lang; Donna Sherman is slickly perfidious as his patent attorney; and Mark Harp displays a smooth 1930s style in various roles.
Yet despite IIA's good work, you're left with the niggling suspicion that "The Water Engine" must be a humdinger of a radio play. And, like the best examples of that genre, it's probably most effective when your imagination does the work for you.
'The Water Engine'
When: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees at 3 p.m. Sundays. Through April 12.
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.
Call: (410) 752-8558.