Not only was he married to Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller wrote some plays, babies! We’ll see another one of his celebrated works later this season (you’ll have to wait to see which one) but first up is his vaudevillian look at the Great Depression, his play The American Clock. Turns out, Miller and I have (had, RIP) a lot in common: We’re of Polish Jewish descent (all for him, part for me), we both went to Big 10 schools for undergrad (and I bet neither of us had to bribe our way in!), and I’m guessing we both love theatre. Best of all, we both can be guilty of writing too much and not editing the final work enough! This show was HELLA LONG. I would never complain about running times if they use the time wisely; I have a great attention span (although I did just have the urge to shouttype SQUIRREL). But nothing bothers me more than when shows should have been edited and would have been much better off had they been. Like that sentence! The first act of The American Clock is an hour and a half, the second is just over an hour, so with the interval it’s three hours of your day. Given what works in this play and what doesn’t, they could have easily cut an hour. A whole hour! That’s why I’m opening this by talking about length. There were some moments of brilliance, but they would have shone much brighter had they not been sandwiched by dullness.
Early on, the show seems to really click, due to a few important facts: The narrator is featured heavily; the setting of the Depression about to dawn is established; the set, especially the chalkboard stock lists and high ladders, seems well used. The narrator is a smooth and fantastic Clarke Peters, who I am ashamed to say I knew best as the actor in the Julia Roberts space movie-within-a-movie in “Notting Hill”, when Hugh Grant is pretending to be a journalist from Horse & Hound and he asks Clarke if there were any bits of the movie he especially enjoyed filming and Clarke says to Hugh “Why don’t you tell me the bits you liked and I’ll tell you if I enjoyed making them” which is like so something a tired actor would snarkily say to a journalist at the tail end of a junket. Anyway, Giles Terrera, the original Burr of London’s production of Hamilton, was supposed to play this role, but at the last minute he pulled out (so he won’t get preeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeegnant) (no it was like for a family thing and I hope all is well) and Clarke swapped in. I honestly can’t imagine Terrera in this role, as it was perfect for Clarke. When he was onstage, the show worked, if only for his charisma and command of the stage and your attention. After the first few scenes, the narrator role ended up being too small for that kind of power Clarke has, and the show falls the flattest when he isn’t leading the brigade.
But then the flat moments outshine the great moments, mainly because there is no real chance for emotional connection with the characters. Since it’s a series of Depression-era vignettes, showing how far-reaching the personals traumas were, you don’t get to really live with any of the characters enough to care as deeply as you want to in a play. The only characters you follow and return to are the mother, father, and son of the Baum family. Presumably, since you see a lot of them, you’d obtain the necessary emotional connection through them. However, in a rare misfire from Chavkin, the Baum family was triple-cast, meaning three different sets of actors played those three characters, rotating scene by scene. Although the sentiment – showing that the Depression was Depressing for an endless stream of people, of all ethnicities and walks of life – is understandable, the effect was that we didn’t get to connect with anyone as we should have. As a result, the action feels extra removed and eventually extra dull. Only a few brilliant moments come when Clarke isn’t onstage, like when Ewan Wardrop appears as a tap-dancing CEO about to quit his job (seriously, in this economy?), and when Golda Rosheuvel (not a little old Jewish lady buying the last babka! I know!) appears both as a communist activist and a forking BOOMING-voiced singer. For a non-musical, there are a lot of great musical moments like these producing the magic, perhaps because that's what Chavkin's best at. But the vignettes continuously disappoint, perhaps because of the missing link of the Baum family, perhaps because a lot of them are simply unnecessary. The best one comes thanks to the talents of Abdul Salis, who I also only knew because he was also in the movie “Notting Hill” but when it was “Love Actually”, as Tony, the friend of Colin (Colin being the bellend who goes to America and is the worst character and storyline in the whole movie). Abdul plays a café owner in Mississippi, who, as a black man, can do little to protest the exploitative actions of the local sheriff. Abdul gets the biggest line in the whole thing, when he comments that “The main thing about the Depression is that it finally hit the white people.” When he said that line, a black lady across the way from me clapped and shouted ‘yes!’ and nudged the white girl sitting next to her and pointed at the stage and honestly that was the best moment of my week.
I would have loved more of Abdul’s café owner, seeing what happened to him, following him long enough to forge a connection, but that wasn’t going to happen. And then there was just too much filler and fat. I don’t understand the entire near-end scene with all the ladies playing cards. It was the kind of moment in a play where I’d almost stand up and say “oh THIS is the bad place!” Why was that in there? And why did they have Francesca Mills play EVERY SINGLE FEMALE CHARACTER? Flora Dawson, another actor onstage in the ensemble, had literally one line, but Mills, I just checked her bio, played SEVEN different named characters in this? I don’t get ittttt. It is great, however, that Mills was cast (she is a little person), in this theatre town that desperately needs more diversity in casting. Chavkin’s productions continue to be the most diverse in the game, across ethnicities, body types, everything. She’s really paying attention to the changes that need to happen when there’s no need for cookie-cutter interchangeable chorus girls.
Overall, it’s a decent play, with some great performances (and yes Clarke Peters was my favorite but his run is now over; his role is played by Sule Rimi) but there were just too many overly long, often dull moments. Fortunately, at the very end the power of the stories came together a bit, when they reminded us that this wasn’t just a wee look at the past; it was a warning for what’s likely to hit us soon with Brexit (slash fill-in-your-country’s-turmoil across the world). A shame they saved the majority of the emotional heft for the last minute, but that is what you walk away remembering. Like I said, Depressing!
We were notified a few weeks before the show that our seats had been relocated, possibly due to the change in staging or the construction. I was now in Row H in the center, which sounded like a claustrophobic frequent pee-er’s nightmare (I always need aisles) but it ended up being the front row on the main side of the stalls (the good side, right by the exit to the outdoor toilets) and there is HELLA legroom in that front row so it didn’t matter that it was central, I could easily run past the rest of my row with my arms fully extended to the sides. It ended up being an amazing Best Seat Ever situation, except for the jackass lady behind us who refused to shut off her phone (and we weren’t even the ones who asked her to turn it off! Other people cared for once too! Yay other people who care!).
Because the whole outdoor loo sitch is inconvenient, there are two staff workers outside them with buckets of candy, which is hilarious and adorable. No vegan candy but still, I love that they tried to be nice.