nytheatre.com review by David Hilder
October 13, 2006
The Barrow Group, that bastion of naturalistic performance and verisimilitude, enters its 20th season with Dan Clancy's The Timekeepers. It's notable that the key players here (director Lee Brock and leading actors Seth Barrish and Eric Paeper) are the company's co-artistic directors and executive director, respectively. If anyone can pull off the Barrow Group aesthetic, it's these three. And they score, most impressively.
The Timekeepers spans slightly less than a year in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Prisoner 1793 (Barrish), a Jewish man of middle age, fixes watches in a silent, solitary room, until one day gay prisoner 9355 (Paeper) is brought in to join him. Apparently 9355 has told one of the capos—prisoners who serve as guards—that he knows how to mend watches as well. But he does not; he's never fixed so much as a poker game in his life. 9355 lied in order to get what would clearly be a better work assignment in the camp than either the cement factory, where he might live for two or three months, or the medical lab, where he would serve as a guinea pig for "experiments" such as castration.
1793 is Benjamin, and 9355 is Hans, but it takes a while for these two to get to addressing each other by name, since Benjamin is as tight-lipped as Hans is garrulous. But as Hans may have access to information about Benjamin's lost family, courtesy of the capo with whom Hans is sleeping, Benjamin reluctantly agrees to teach him some basic techniques. Eventually, it's music that binds them, a mutual love of opera—except that Benjamin adores Verdi, and Hans worships Puccini, and neither will have anything to do with the other's favorite. Harmony and conflict, communication and silence, motion and stillness, ease and discomfort work their way through the small room where these two men fix watches, side by side, day in and day out.
This is frequently a beautiful play, and Barrish and Paeper and Brock are clearly working in complete synchronicity. Barrish renders Benjamin's meticulous exactitude, diffidence, fear, and love with astonishing command. No less impressive is Paeper, who turns what could be a role rife with stereotypes into a fully realized, three-dimensional man who has experienced his own pain. Neither shies away from the uglier side of his character, evidenced in several powerful arguments between the homophobic Benjamin and the anti-Semitic Hans. And to the credit of both actors and particularly to Brock, the pacing of the play is unerring—not a mean feat when your title is The Timekeepers.
Two flaws make this a less-than-perfect evening of theatre. First, Clancy's script, which is marvelous in tracking the detailed journey of these two very different men, founders when it reaches for outsized emotion—perhaps because the small details and quiet moments are so very effective, the moments of outburst feel unearned, out of sync. And Chris Cantwell's Capo is not of the same play as Barrish's and Paeper's prisoners.
However, these are minor considerations in the larger scheme. Anyone interested in seeing the very best of detailed, finely tuned naturalistic acting needs to get to The Barrow Group's The Timekeepers.