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A CurtainUp Review

The American Clock

The Signature Theatre Company, which each year devotes an entire season to a single living playwright, has launched its Arthur Miller tribute with a loving production of a play that has undergone several permutations since its birth in 1980. As directed by James Houghton, this American Clock, unlike the short-lived 1980 Broadway production, features twenty-eight well-known American songs -- (Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern George and Ira Gershwin, etc.) -- played by a group of four musicians. Some of the songs are sung by members of the cast (with notable contributions by Myra Lucretia Taylor), some are accompanied by dance-like foot movements. The four musicians, two at either side of the red and white-striped set (designed by E. David Cosier) begin playing even before the fifteen actors take the seats propped against the blue sky at the rear of the stage. The cheerful music is not just a prologue but a contradictory punctuation before and after the many vignettes that follow.

If this doesn't sound like something you'd expect to see in an Arthur Miller play, neither is a large cast that creates a collage of bits and pieces of the lives of some forty Depression era characters ranging from shoeshine boys to farmers and Wall Street financiers. The more typical and best known Miller plays tend to focus on a single family unit, with the playwright's larger social concerns growing out of their characterizations and conflicts.

Miller's two primary concerns have always been with oppression -- (i.e., the Nazi terror) -- and a failure to pay attention to those swept up in the country's social and moral crises -- (Remember Edna Loman's 's unforgettable demand ". . .attention must be paid. He is not to be allowed to fall into his grave, like an old dog? " Thus, The American Clock 's panoramic sweep of the Depression's devastating effect on Americans everywhere is very much a Miller play.

It is atypical strictly in its conceptual departure from the playwright's usual well-made play format. The music which was restored (per his original intent) in several well-received productions elsewhere (including London) is not really that new a concept when you consider that a treasured musical instrument played a key part in The Price as does an imaginary piano in The American Clock.

Furthermore, exerting particularly strong voices are a group of Miller characters who bear close kinship to his own family as well as the family from The Price. The Clock family centers on the more prosperous Manhattan Baums, Rose (Laura Esterman) and Moe ( Lewis J. Stadlen) and their son Lee (Jason Fisher), who have been forced to leave Manhattan and join their poorer relatives in Brooklyn. Rose is the imaginary piano player. She accompanies herself on that piano to tunes that remind her of better days when life was filled with Broadway shows and before Brooklyn seemed to "drift finally into the Atlantic" and Manhattan became a "foreign country." She hocks her jewelry but clings desperately to that piano as her husband Moe, a once successful businessman who no longer has any business to conduct, clings desperately to his crumbling dignity, even when he must borrow subway fare from his son. That son is, of course, the survivor (and author stand-in) who hardens himself to live through the hopeless present as he yearns for "the dream to come back from wherever it had gone to hide" Completing the family unit is Rose's father (Stephen Pearlman), her sister (Mary Catherine Right) and an aspiring songwriter nephew (Chris Messina) pushed into a relationship with the landlady's daughter (Keira Naughton) as a possible trade-off for the rent.

The Baums embody Miller's strength in portraying the strong family unit, (a fact underscored by the casting of his own sister, Joan Copeland, as Rose in the original Off and On-Broadway production). Laura Esterman's, Rose, as well as the other actors' portrayal of the family is filled with feeling. However, these emotionally engaging characters are also both the play's strength and weakness. Despite the fact that their stories are interspersed into Miller's larger social canvas they somehow leave you with the feeling that you've seen the cast from a "conventional" Miller play shoehorned into the vignettes from Studs Terkel's epic documentary Hard Times which inspired this play. That book which was credited as a source when Viking published The American Clock in 1980 is not listed in the current production's program, though its influence is very much in evidence.

The vignettes, too numerous to describe here, are very affecting and the actors navigate their multiple roles with real flair . The trouble is that by the second act, a certain repetition and school room quality intrudes on the evening's dramatic proceedings. Consequently, contrary to the title's implication that these lives are ticking by all too fast, the temptation in the audience is to wish that things would tick to an end just a little faster (the play runs 2 hours and 40 minutes!).

While I can't compare this current production to its ill-fated 1980 original, or its highly praised version at the Mark Taper Forum and in London, I can say that, in spite of its shortcomings, it's well worth seeing -- especially so with an upcoming revival (by the Roundabout) of A View From the Bridge which will give audiences a chance to see one of Miller's best-known and lesser-known plays in one season.

James Houghton deserves every theater goer's thanks and admiration for creating an environment that honors those who have brought us theater that, even when not perfect, is always filled with the passion of their commitments. Playwrights who breathe life into one of our recent selections for CurtainUps Quote of the Week from Frederic Garcia Lorcas (1936):"The theater is one of the most expressive and useful vehicles for the edification of a country's people, and a barometer that marks the country's greatness or declines. A sensitive theater. . .can alter a people's sensibility in just a few years, while a decadent theater where hooves have taken the place of wings can cheapen and lull to sleep an entire nation"
By Arthur Miller
Directed by James Houghton
With Laura Esterman, Lewis J. Stadlen, Kale Browne, Jason Fisher, Patrick Husted, David Kener, Melissa King, Chris Messina, Keira Naughton, Paul Niebanck, Stephen Pearlman, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mary Catherine Wright, Christopher Wynkoop.
Musical Director: Annie Louie Loui
Choreographer: Loren Toolajian
Set Designer: E David Cosierd
Costume Designer: Gail Brassart
Lighting Designer: Jeffrey S. Koger
Sound Designer: Red Ramona
Signature Theatre, 555 W. 42nd St.( 212/244-PLAY 10/07-11/16 (opens 10/28)
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 10/25/97

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