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The Water Engine Reviews

An impressive cast of veteran stage performers inhabits this stylized production of David Mamet's stage play. Set in Depression-era Chicago, Mamet's fable imparts a chilling message about corporate greed and the defenselessness of the individual who opposes Big Business. Produced for the cable network TNT as the inaugural episode of its "Screenworks" series, THE WATER ENGINE first aired in 1992, and was released to the home video market in 1995. Drill press operator Charles Lang (William H. Macy) has invented an engine that derives its energy from water. He plans to patent his invention and use the proceeds to lift himself and his blind sister Rita (Patti LuPone) out of the slums of Chicago. He demonstrates the engine for patent attorney Mason Gross (John Mahoney), who brings Lawrence Oberman (Joe Mantegna), an attorney claiming to represent "outside interests," into the negotiations. Distrustful of both men, Charles hides his engine and the blueprints. Using threats and intimidation, Oberman tries to get Charles to turn over the engine and the plans. Charles refuses to give in to Oberman's threats and finds himself pursued by Oberman's henchmen as well as the police. He contacts newspaper reporter Dave Murray (Treat Williams) and arranges an appointment to discuss his invention and Oberman's efforts to suppress it. Oberman kidnaps Rita and prevents Charles from keeping his appointment with Murray. Charles manages to deposit the blueprints in a mailbox before he is trapped by Oberman. Charles refuses to answer Oberman's questions unless Rita is released. The next day, the bodies of a mutilated man and woman are found in the river. Charles' young friend Bernie (Tim Farrell) receives a set of blueprints in the mail for a water-powered engine which he may one day build. The integrity of THE WATER ENGINE has not been compromised in its transition from stage to screen. It remains Broadway-calibre entertainment with outstanding performances and first-rate production values. Director Steven Schacter retained the style and artiness of a stage production. While distancing some viewers, this approach imparts a sense of resonating importance to the proceedings. Mamet, who adapted the script from his 1976 play, peppers the piece with cryptic dialogue, including a bizarre conversation overheard on a bus, and an ominous chain letter which snakes through town (read as a voice-over by Martin Sheen). Its Kafka-esque elements aside, THE WATER ENGINE is an intense, gripping drama. Macy's doomed protagonist is a well-crafted, intense portrayal. Mantegna is suitably sinister. LuPone is refreshingly upbeat, a lone ray of sunshine in a somber piece. A wealth of accomplished performers are on hand in supporting and cameo roles. Betty Madden's costumes and Barry Robison's set pieces convincingly reflect the period. (Adult situations, violence.)