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‘Lakeboat’ cruises hilarious waters

Sean Bolger (Joe) Nick Horst (Dale) taking break deck T. Harris'Lakeboat' Steep Theatre Company.

Sean Bolger (Joe) and Nick Horst (Dale) taking break on the deck of the T. Harrison in "Lakeboat" at Steep Theatre Company.

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◆ Through Feb. 26

◆ Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn

◆ Tickets: $20-$22

◆ (312) 458-0722;

Updated: January 21, 2011 9:12PM

‘Lakeboat,” now receiving a rare and rip-roaring revival at Chicago’s Steep Theatre, is David Mamet’s distinctive answer to the early sea plays of Eugene O’Neill.

Like O’Neill’s work, Mamet’s play is the quasi-autobiographical tale of a not-so-sentimental education, inspired by a brief summertime stint in his late teens when he worked as a steward on a Great Lakes freighter. A very early work, “Lakeboat” was initially produced at Marlboro College in 1970 and revised a decade later for its first professional production in Milwaukee.

Alternately raunchy, poetic, enigmatic, tragicomic and awash in the blue-collar types Mamet invariably admires, the play can be viewed as a harbinger of the work that would follow. In addition, arriving here in the wake of the blistering American Theater Company double bill of “Oleanna” and “Speed-the-Plow” last fall, this Steep production suggests that now, decades after Mamet left Chicago, this city remains the best interpreter of his work.

Director G.J. Cederquist has found some terrific local character actors, with many weathered faces among them, to play the seven salty roles in this 85-minute drama. And Nick Horst is just right as the eighth fellow — Dale Katzman, the young, innocent, sweet-faced, well-fed college sophomore (and Jew) who has little experience of the world, but is not entirely gullible. Though slightly wary, Dale is a willing sponge for everything the more battered and less privileged men on board can impart. They are “lifers.” He is a visitor.

Working with set designer Dan Stratton and sound master Miles Polaski, Cederquist has ingeniously staged the play along a minimalist but highly effective bowling-alley-like strip of space (with the audience seated on either side), so that we feel like on-deck spectators. What passes for plot (related by Jason Michael Lindner as the Pierman) involves the fate of a fellow seaman who got drunk while on shore leave, was rolled by a prostitute and subsequently was beaten to a pulp. The event makes some of the guy’s shipmates wax existential, with Joe (Sean Bolger), sensing his dead-end life and entertaining thoughts of suicide; Stan (Peter Moore), trying to maintain balance despite his own excess of alcohol, and Fred (Eric Roach), talking about women and sex in the most lewd yet also strangely reverential terms.

Norm Woodel is all old-school bark as Skippy, the oldest guy on board. Alex Gillmor is the make-no-waves second mate. And Jim Poole is the lackadaisical Fireman. All of them are first class. And you can be sure that Dale will return to college with greater maturity and a whole lot of material for his future as a writer.

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