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WASTE OF TIME

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It takes chutzpah for a small theatrical company to revive Arthur Miller’s 1980 play, "The American Clock," as The Sackett Group is doing at Fort Greene’s Brooklyn Music School Playhouse through Sunday. A large-cast, historical pageant about the Great Depression, that’s also a thinly veiled memoir of the late dramatist’s coming-of-age, this minor work is as stylistically erratic as it is conceptually ambitious.

At first, the show comes across as being an agit-prop revue: there’s the occasional insertion of period songs, a couple of dance numbers, and some representative vignettes peopled by largely forgotten real-life figures like Jesse Livermore (the man some held accountable for the stock market crash of 1929) and Billy Durant (the one-time general manager of Buick).

But in the second act, Miller switches over to a fairly conventional structure by extracting a single narrative thread from his crazy quilt structure then forcing it to serve as the clothesline from which he’ll hang his main ideas.

Given the playwright’s standing as one of the 20th century’s great social realists, there’s a certain fascination that comes with seeing him in such an experimental mode. The themes - the mercilessness of capitalism; the quiet dignity of the common man - are what you’d expect from the man behind "Death of a Salesman," but he’s also pushing himself (and the audience) in unexpected directions, too.

At times, like one scene in which a failed dentist tells a prostitute about his fear of drilling, the humor is sly and broad; other times, he’s scripted external commentary that echoes the choral speeches of Greek tragedy.

Yet if "The American Clock" reveals Miller at his most adventurous, it also finds him at his most stridently didactic and his least structurally coherent. Many monologues, short on character and long on moralizing, are undisguised sermons preaching a message of moral outrage: a Harlem- widow-turned-Communist-organizer proclaims the importance of getting mean when the system treats you inhumanely; the former General Electric executive, Theodore K. Quinn, denounces big business as the antithesis of the American Dream. When the semi-autobiographical Baum family’s hard-luck story of upper-middle class privilege destroyed by Black Tuesday eventually emerges as the through-line feels more like default than grand design.

That sort of throwing up your hands and going with what’s familiar unfortunately informs the Sackett Group’s production as well. The current show, the troupe’s third as resident company at the Brooklyn Music School, doesn’t follow Miller’s brash if bumbling first act homage to the music hall nor attacks his manifesto-like speeches with the gusto they require. Instead, director Robert Weinstein and his cohorts impose a realistic acting style nearly throughout that makes the bolder sections seem fragmented and small and the kitchen sink moments somewhat isolated and overstated.

A marathon dance contest drifts on, then evaporates into nowhere; a speech about one man’s life after jail is presented like an actor’s audition; an encounter between a journalist and a night watchman feels contrived.

The root of the problem may be simply that Weinstein has come at the material a little too reverentially. A misapplied form of respect informs the production with austerity overhanging the entire proceedings.

Set designer John Scheffler has left the stage nearly bare: a few raised platforms, a hideous prop piano, wooden folding chairs on which the actors sit to observe the action when not performing it. Dallas Williams’s costumes are somber: predominantly black dresses, black shirts, and black pants that make the men especially resemble stagehands, not members from a bygone era. Even the tinny sound system - which pipes in Bessie Smith and an incongruous Ella Fitzgerald - has a limited range of color.

A few actors in this monochromania make it work in supporting roles: Dawn Marie Hale looks as though she’d step right out of a sepia-toned Dorothea Lange photo; Lillian Small could do screwball comedies with Paul Falcetta as her mustachioed straight man. (All of these performers are woefully underused and under-directed; others, playing up to five different parts, are unnecessarily overburdened in a cast of 18.)

As to the leads, David Sochet, as Miller’s stand-in, has misguidedly confused unflagging earnestness for Miller’s signature eternal truth-seeking. Like the larger production, he works too hard to be taken seriously when at times, he - and everyone else for that matter - could have just been having fun.

You can understand why Weinstein chose to direct "The American Clock." Miller is easily one of the borough’s most respected native writers. A successful mounting of this problematic play would have been quite a coup for his company. Furthermore, the parallels between the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Depression proved prescient timing. If only "The American Clock" hadn’t come unwound!

 

The Sackett Group’s production of "The American Clock" runs Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 4 pm through Feb. 19 at the Brooklyn Music School Playhouse (126 St. Felix St. between Lafayette Avenue and Hanson Place in Fort Greene). Tickets are $19. For reservations, call (718) 638-7104 or e-mail sackettgroup@verizon.net.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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