The American Clock
nytheatre.com review by Rachel Merrill Moss
March 6, 2011
Tightening belts, avoiding debt collectors, and waiting it out in the unemployment office are but a few of the topics handled in Arthur Miller's exploration of the Great Depression that make an easy parallel between that depression and this one. Association of money as a higher power and the inability to choose higher education due to money, a couple more, all of which are tied together through intermingling stories and folk music in The American Clock, now playing at the Brooklyn Lyceum.
Based in part on Studs Terkel's collection of interviews put together for Hard Times, his book on the Great Depression, Miller's Clock focuses mainly on the struggle of the Baum family with other vignettes and songs weaved throughout. Starting in a spacious Manhattan apartment in 1929, the Baums quickly descend to cramped Brooklyn living, lamenting the days of casual expenditures. As a fourteen-year-old at the play's outset, Lee Baum watches and comments as the world changes before his eyes and he's thrust quickly into adulthood. A de facto narrator, Lee guides the story through his attempt to make his way to college, finagle himself on to unemployment, and experiment with socialism. Long gone from his parents' home by the time of his mother's unraveling, Lee's journey ultimately ends on a positive note, happy, healthy, and fulfilling his initial career goal.
Miller's script, dotted with moving descriptions of "Calcutta on the Hudson" and the like, delivers a commentary that neatly fits today's dilemmas. Young Lee Baum describes that before 1929, there was a sense of belief in the country that departed quickly when things took a turn, intimating that had that belief persisted things could have been better. American belief has been a tricky trail to traverse, however, and perhaps it was an unfounded belief in the system's unfaltering power that brought the depression, then and now. Finished in 1981, Miller's Clock seems to have foreseen the future of money-blinded belief, and seemed to be cautioning lest we forget, a message that has come a bit too late this go around.
Cynthia Babak's staging is appropriately pared-down in true depression style: several playing areas with the bare minimum of set pieces. Beautiful and period-appropriate costumes adorn the actors, which become worn and more basic throughout the play, a fine aesthetic touch that supports the journey. Set in the cavernous Brooklyn Lyceum spaces, the cast, large as it may be (23 actors!), has a heady task with adequately filling the space. The delightful folk quartet helps to shrink the space, and Babak's choice to seat all actors when not performing in pews behind the playing space, stoically watching their fates, serves to fill some of the expanse as well, but at times the somber action simply gets lost in the space's magnitude.
But the end note here is meant to be buoyant and blithe. Several of the standout moments are jaunty song and dance numbers featuring the more light-hearted of 1930s music, which illuminate the vestiges of hope and joy through the dismal, dreary times. And capping it off with a final, hopeful number, Babak's production has certainly made a valiant attempt to help eschew those negativities in lieu of the positives concerning our contemporary situation.