History’s Mysteries


I love the past; the movies are always better there. When it comes to plays, though, I get more selective. Americans in general tend to take the past as a lump sum that’s already been spent; any old coin you show them will do as a token of the whole bygone monetary system. Those of us who see the past as a living whole, continuous with the present, know too much to take the mechanically touted pinchbeck specimens as fair samples of the whole.

The Water Engine, at least, gives you two layers of pastness, one balanced with intriguing instability on top of the other. And no one makes grandiose claims for it as a quintessence of either time: David Mamet’s 1977 notion of a 1930s radio thriller is no more than that, a little carpentered thing to divert you for an hour or so with its suspense-will the genius inventor escape the baddies who want to steal his engine, or won’t he?-while teasing your mind with hints of the occult, glimmers of Big Brother paranoia, and spoonfuls of nostalgia for that simpler day when technology meant a better life for everyone. Mamet’s never wasteful: The mind-teasing side issues all not only impinge on the central story but help to build its suspense. And he’s never fraudulent; his little riff on history has a core of truth: For a century, experimenters have been diddling with turbines that could run by separating the hydrogen in H2O from the oxygen. Trouble is, for planes, trains, and automobiles, you need a combustible fuel that gives off more energy than that supplies.

And Mamet’s play needs a sterner structure; this one’s a little thin, its gaps a little too glaring, even for a trifle. Why does the first lawyer the hero goes to immediately sell him out? How do his stalkers know he’s phoned the newspaper? And why can’t the guy at the city desk send out a beat reporter then and there? On radio, for which the piece was originally written, the holes are less apparent; the first stage production covered them up with the gadgetry and blinking lights of a radio studio. This also let Mamet neatly off the hook: It wasn’t a play, but a stage event about broadcasting; that the script had
hidden flaws added to the nostalgic charm.

Karen Kohlhaas’s rendition, which opens the Atlantic’s all-Mamet season, blows the play’s cover with its doughty honesty. A few mikes and some games with sound effects pay formal obeisance to the radio-drama gimmick. Otherwise, what you get is Mamet’s play, juicily acted by a core of company members who are old hands at his verbal games-Steven Goldstein, Mary McCann, Jordan Lage-and frequent guests-Peter Maloney, Peter Jacobson-who pick them up with ease. Goldstein adds a notch of pain to the suspense by playing the inventor as a bewildered, integrity-laden cherub, where W.H. Macy made him a truculent, battered skeptic. But with the glitter gone, there’s a few noticeably creaky joints in the plywood structure.

The evening gets a suitably topsy-turvy start from its seamless curtain raiser, the brief monologue Mr. Happiness, in which a ’30s radio advice columnist spills sanctimonious platitudes over letters from souls in emotional misery, not forgetting to plug his book in the process. Charles Kimbrough, who premiered the piece in ’78, made the character a weary self-hater, trapped in his own private hell by the dreck he was spouting. Bob Balaban goes to the other extreme: He’s a believer, his button eyes gleaming, his chin pointing arrowlike towards the mike that sends his pieties out to the world. Marital fidelity and filial honesty excite him so much that his book plug is almost an afterthought. Who knew that Beckett’s Krapp was next of kin to Elmer Gantry? Mamet did.

— But how much did John Osborne know about what he was doing in 1956, when Look Back in Anger premiered? Apart from its West End?spawned manipulative tactics, almost nothing; the self-indulgent, posturing theatrics of Osborne’s hero, with which we’re invited to sympathize, reveal a variety of embarrassingly infantile emotional goals, with minimal substantive context. It’s a classic instance of a work that’s failed the test of time. You sit through it baffled at the notion that it could have contained the seeds of an alleged theatrical revolution. The concept of Osborne’s puerilities empowering writers way beyond his ballpark, like Pinter or Stoppard, remains a puzzle. There were a lot of really exciting writers hovering on the edge of the English theater then, many unjustly neglected now-N.F. Simpson, Ann Jellicoe, John Arden, Arnold Wesker-but it’s hard to imagine them deriving impetus, strategy, or inspiration from Osborne’s play.

What Look Back in Anger most resembles, looking back now, is the genteel commercial contrivances of the era, as exemplified by the work of Terence Rattigan. Osborne’s innovation is simply to make his hero an ill-bred and ill-tempered new school parvenu instead of an Oxcam gent. Rather than striving upwards
into the system, he’s a proud reverse snob, idolizing the proletariat while pursuing upper-class debs who fall into his arms after every vicious harangue. That Jimmy Porter actually hates women, and might be happier snuggling with his half-educated buddy Cliff, is a notion Osborne Rattiganishly flirts with-the Lord Chamberlain still ruled London’s theaters then -but never confronts. Jimmy’s tantrums are spoiled-child narcissism; when he whines that there are no great causes left, he weirdly prefigures the rich twinks of The Country Club.

Jo Bonney’s production gives the tantrums their due, but she can’t help seeing through the postures to the yawn-causing self-pity underneath. Reg Rogers, her Jimmy, presumably has notes in his range beyond the whiny, though it’s hard to imagine him coming close, in the tough-and-sexy department, to either Kenneth Haigh, who created the role, or Richard Burton, who filmed it. Be that as it may, this Jimmy Porter acts not with a bang but a whimper; his colleagues have him outclassed in both senses of the word. Angelina Phillips makes two-faced Helena (one of Osborne’s least convincing creations) a believable figure, while Enid Graham, as the stressed-out, proudly silent Alison, is a three-dimensional marvel. What’s disturbing is that Rogers’s bundle of sulks and quivers seems to have provoked these female extremes; what he’s doing fits the script-the ultimate condemnation of Osborne’s work. The brusque, manly seductiveness of a Haigh or Burton was the coverup for Osborne’s shortcomings, as surely as the flashing studio lights covered up the flaws in The Water Engine. But good performances can’t rescue Osborne’s hollow honkings. The English theater exploded in 1956, and maybe his drab little play struck the match; to me, what was packed inside the powder keg is more interesting. That London’s theater enshrines Osborne, while sloughing off the more inventive writers around him, may explain why English playwriting, in the past 20 years, has declined to its current degraded state.