The American Clock review at Old Vic, London – ‘moments of excellence’
There’s a great deal this lesser-known Arthur Miller play has in common with the other lesser-known Arthur Miller play that opened up the road earlier this week, The Price. Both are autobiographical, both look at the devastation of the Great Depression, the rotten precipice of capitalism, and both even have an amusing elderly Jewish character and a ham radio.
But, where The Price was fairly run-of-the-Miller in terms of structure and theme, this 1980 creation presents itself as something altogether different. Miller called it a ‘vaudeville’ and, in between snapshots that roughly follow a family as they lose everything in 1930s New York, there are big old song and dance numbers.
Director Rachel Chavkin makes exciting work (she has also just directed Hadestown at the National) and her big idea here is to take the central family – Moe, Rose and Lee Baum – and give the roles to three sets of actors. One family is white, one South Asian, one African American, each family taking it in turns.
Their story is broken up like shrapnel and scattered among a lot of busy stage stuff. Every time it settles into familiar Miller territory – bickering families, weighty themes – Chavkin pushes back and adds a burst of wild Charleston dance or a shower of rain.
Other scenes, other stories and characters intrude too, lending the production a constant, unsettled feeling of montage, but without the rapidity required to make that successful – the sheer number of scenes makes the play flash by too quickly, but at the same time the number of scene changes slows things down.
There’s a fine cast here, though, including Clarke Peters as the narrator. His calm and sincere delivery contains in it a striking sadness. Beside him is the ever-powerful Golda Rosheuvel, who comes close to stealing the show, first as a rabble-rousing communist giving a storming speech, and then as Rose 3 suffering a nervous breakdown while waiting for the bailiffs to come calling.
Fred Haig, Taheen Modak and Jyuddah Jaymes all make marks in their own way as the three versions of Lee, and Clare Burt’s bruised dignity creates a moving Rose 1.
It feels like Miller, who based a lot of the play not only on his own life, but on a book called Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, is trying out exercises in wretchedness, from the mother selling her beloved piano to the man who collapses in the welfare office because he hasn’t eaten for days. It’s an unrelenting parade of acts of desperation and debasement, and acutely sad to watch.
That makes for a hard contrast with the whirling dance interludes that Chavkin and choreographer Ann Yee bring to the show, set to period songs given driving remixes by composer Justin Ellington. They’re pure fun, but their joy sits heavily alongside the utter misery of the characters’ lives.
Each component is tautly done, and often riveting. It’s the sum that’s the problem. There’s no mesh. And while excellence shines in individual moments, the entirety is too ponderous and fussy to have its full effect.
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