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A CurtainUp London Review
Lakeboat and Prairie du Chien
by Neil Dowden
The one-hour Lakeboat, the slightly more substantial of the two, was Mamet's first play in 1970, but he revised it ten years later. Probably influenced by Eugene O'Neill's Glencairn plays, it's a semi-autobiographical account of a young college student doing a summer job as a steward on a cargo boat on the Great Lakes, where he learns about the professional and private lives of the older, experienced crew. He also hears differing versions of what may have happened to his unfortunate predecessor, allegedly 'rolled over' when drunk by 'the Outfit' or the 'G-Men'.
There is no narrative as such in this episodic piece, made up mainly of fragmented conversations between two people, giving glimpses into this macho environment of manual work, rivalry, camaraderie, braggadocio and confidences. As usual, Mamet examines the vulnerability underlying the combative male psyche with thrusting wit, though the work seems a bit underwritten and does not fully develop as the rite of passage it promises to be.
Director Abbey Wright ensures a good head of steam is maintained from one brief scene to the next, though there is not enough sense of motion in this voyage, while designer Helen Goddard's rusty-coloured girders suggest the bowels of a ship but with insufficient claustrophobia. The cast make a decent effort at capturing the heightened naturalism of the 'Mamet speak' dialogue, without always getting the accent or rhythm quite right. Steven Webb does well as the naìve novice all at sea, while the paternal Nigel Cooke suggests the melancholy of unfulfilled potential and Rory Keenan reveals the true cost of boasted drinking and sexual exploits.
Steamboat is exchanged for steam train in Prairie du Chien, a radio play which Mamet later reworked for the stage. Its origins can be seen in its form of dramatic monologue, with a Storyteller outlining a tall tale of jealousy, murder, suicide and ghostly goings on to an almost silent Listener as they travel west in the early part of the last century. Meanwhile, at a table next to them, a couple of men drink and smoke while playing gin rummy with increasing tension.
Like a more restrained Poe short story, Mamet skilfully builds up the suspenseful atmosphere, again touching on his tropes of confidence trickery and male competitiveness, with the related macabre yarn nicely juxtaposed with here-and-now violent drama. An eerie mood is strongly created in Wright's still but tense staging and Goddard's period setting, with a scratchy record rotating and a railroad guard whistling low. Cooke enthrals us as the quietly mysterious narrator, while the card-playing Keenan is a powder keg waiting to explode.
Minor Mamet these plays may be, but it's well worth catching this double bill as a rare chance to see the development of one of American theatre's most distinctive voices.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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