Court Theatre

This has been the season of the two steps back. There’s revival and nostalgia everywhere you look. The Northlight Theatre adapts and stages Studs Terkel’s Depression-era reminiscence, Talking to Myself; Steppenwolf does likewise with John Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl manifesto, The Grapes of Wrath. Michael Butler restages Hair, the Organic hosts a resurrected Rocky Horror Show, and Joel Grey bops through town with yet another edition of Cabaret, while Bailiwick Rep keeps extending its production of Animal Farm.

I could go on. Maybe we’re looking for refuge, or maybe we’re looking for clues–but whatever our reasons, it’s pretty clear we’ve become deeply engrossed in looking back.

And that’s natural–even healthy, if it helps us figure out what’s been happening to us. How we got to this time of plague, debt, and homelessness, when public malfeasance and corporate greed are not only rampant but considered to be, well, kinda sexy.

Trouble is, our hindsight’s so bad. Of the shows mentioned above, only Animal Farm is a genuine success, making a concise, coherent, painfully vivid statement about the subversion and destruction of an ideal. About the precise means by which a revolution gets turned inside out.

The rest are either too weak or too wrongheaded to do much good. Hair and Grapes, in particular, function less as the lively social documents they ought to be than as inadvertent cases in point, illustrating by accident and sheer myopia what the Bailiwick show illustrates by design. Works steeped in politics and history but produced with a sensitivity for neither, they’ve been turned completely inside out. They say just exactly the opposite of what they mean, and exemplify the present ugliness instead of attacking it.

Which brings us to Arthur Miller. Who possesses a sense of politics and history. And who uses both to elegant and disturbing effect in The American Clock.

A pastiche with a point, The American Clock takes us on a tour of the Great Depression, leading us from landmark to landmark while building an argument that says important things about the meaning of the event–both for those who experienced it and for all the rest of us who’ve inherited its consequences. Cogently, cannily, powerfully–moving easily from tight focus to wide angle, from individual suffering to societal trauma–Miller’s script explores that pivotal moment in our national life when we came to the end of what one character calls the “Age of Belief” and started living in what another calls “a corporate country.”

It’s an eerily familiar trip. Miller shows us farm auctions in Iowa and collapsing card houses in New York. He takes us through a newborn welfare system–already forcing honest people into ethical pretzels so that they can qualify for a few measly, crucial bucks–and a radically polarized class system, where penthouse dwellers on Riverside Drive have a view of tin shacks on the Hudson. Most tellingly, he reminds us that big companies used the Depression as an opportunity–as leverage, so to speak–for gobbling up smaller ones.

In short, he brings out the scary connections between then and now. It’s a cheap trick, really–something like those articles that ran after President Kennedy’s assassination, proving that Kennedy was in fact the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln. But Miller pulls it off just the same.

Pulls it off in a way that perhaps no other living American playwright could. Our greatest–maybe, now that I think of it, our only–active link to the politically charged realism of Clifford Odets, and to the times that bred it, Miller’s got both the memory and the analysis–not to mention the values–he needs to make practical, contemporary sense of the Depression.

More than that, he’s got the talent. American Clock starts out rather conventionally, hitting all the usual points of interest, from dance marathons to hobo jungles to Wall Street brokerage-house window ledges. But before very long the play’s pushed on into more idiosyncratic regions–like the office of an Irish American master salesman named Quinn who, having finessed his way into the presidency of General Electric, finds some intriguing reasons for finessing his way back out again. Or like the secret heart of a would-be dentist named Joe who reads Engels and visits whores and is finally, unexpectedly heartbreaking.

Even certain well-worn elements get new life here. The American Clock more or less centers on the Baums–well-heeled Jewish New Yorkers who take a bad tumble when the stock market falls. Modeled, evidently, on the playwright’s own family, the Baums are a nicely detailed but familiar bunch, recalling not only Miller’s early creations but some of Odets’s as well. Once upon a time the Baums would’ve had a melodrama all to themselves. But in American Clock their story gets chopped up, Dos Passos-style, into the period stew. And is thereby renewed, relieved of its sentimentality and given a historical context so it can do more than just give us a fairly decent cry.

Though, in this lovely Court Theatre production, a fairly decent cry isn’t entirely out of the question. Laura Whyte and Bob Zrna are especially evocative as the slowly crumbling Baum parents. Patrick Clear justifies his surname with his cool, lucid performances as GE president Quinn and dentist Joe. There’s a bone-dry pain that comes through in the pas de deux between Clear’s Joe and Kate Buddeke’s hardened–yet delicately played–whore.

Tom Webb’s also well-named, bringing together many strands with his authoritative, humorous presence as Robertson–the businessman Virgil who leads us through The American Clock. The production overall is much easier, lighter, faster than what you usually get at the Court, thanks to director Richard Russell Ramos. Even the slide projections that make up part of James Dardenne’s scenic design are effective–particularly when we see a picture of Franklin Roosevelt and realize that all we’ve got is Bush to help us through our crisis.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Sutton.