Hard Times

The American Clock, Arthur Miller's paean to those who lived through the Great Depression, is an ambitious but ultimately flawed portrait of Americans' plight during the turbulent early 1930's. Although the Brooklyn-based Sackett Group, in only its third production, tries to weave together the play's multiple strands, we get mostly shreds of stories that too easily unravel, and the overall effect leaves the audience chilled. Most of the play, an early Miller work, concerns the Baums, a Jewish family living well in Manhattan during the 1920's. But when the stock market crashes in 1929, Moe Baum (Steven W. Bergquist), the father, loses his finance job, and the family begins its long spiral into poverty. Bergquist is appropriately understated as the proud patriarch, genuinely concerned for his family but unable to accept his reversal of fortune.

The Baums are forced to move back to a dilapidated section of Brooklyn, their former home. A whole generation, it is noted, returns to live with its parents—now Bubbys and meshuggah grandfathers—only to be ensnarled in petty domestic disputes while facing dwindling prospects.

Rose Baum (Susan Faye Groberg), Moe's troubled wife, notes with chagrin that sometimes you can go a whole year in Brooklyn and "never go back to Manhattan." Groberg, with humility and sincerity, brings to the production a personal touch that is sorely missed in the other performances, where many of the actors seem to be simply going through the motions.

A large portion of the narrative focuses on Lee (David B. Sochet), Moe and Rose's young son, whose coming-of-age story takes him through the years from Manhattan to Brooklyn and Alabama. Sochet has the difficult task of playing Lee at 13, 15, 18, and into his early 20's. Though his portrayal of Lee's earlier years is a bit too naïve and earnest, he comes into the part more when he's older and working as a journalist.

Strangely, The American Clock presents, along with the Baums' story, short narratives concerning a Midwestern farmer who loses his property and travels east; a loosely aligned group of newly unemployed financial kingpins; an African-American hobo who travels the country in search of work, singing all the way; and a wealthy, socialist CEO who realizes the error of his ways. There's also a dance competition that seems to have no real connection with the other scenes.

All of this is narrated, stiffly, by a clever financier who realizes, before the crash, that he needs to withdraw all his money from banks and instead buy gold—or, at the very least, carry thousands of dollars around in his shoes.

The play's multiple plot lines leave too little room for the development of the individual characters. As a result, there is little crucial empathy created for the characters and their stories. Ultimately, the only characters the audience cares about are the Baums, whose story is more nuanced.

The Sackett Group's choice of The American Clock was an audacious but dangerous decision, and unfortunately the company has fallen victim to many of the risks inherent in mounting the work. Aside from being too overarching and in need of drastic cutting, the play is not particularly well suited to Off-Off-Broadway. With its large cast of more than 30 characters, musical numbers, and major changes of setting, it would be much more effective as a well-funded Broadway or Off-Broadway production. On the Brooklyn Music School Playhouse's vacuous proscenium stage, with a stark, black backdrop and spartan set, the characters seen dancing and singing onstage appear small and distant.

The director, Robert J. Weinstein, makes the interesting choice of having all the actors, when they are not playing in scenes, seated onstage and watching from the sides, as in Our Town. This somewhat compensates for the massive, empty space that so wants to be filled.

The American Clock is a relatively unknown Miller work that is seldom chosen for production, and the Sackett Group's daring venture reveals some of the reasons why. With a more appropriate lineup for the rest of the season, brighter things should be expected from this new company in the future.

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