Samuel Adamson's highly regarded first play, Clocks and Whistles, has been given its American debut thanks to the Origin Theater Company's trans-Atlantic mission statement. It concerns a group of friends—twenty-somethings in late-90's London—who need and want each other, partly because of the sense of ownership that affection breeds. It's also about how their inability to directly communicate emotion is their most enduring quality. As frustrating as this muted, muddled kind of existence might be to watch, we understand that the language of half-truths, things unsaid, and innuendo is precisely the point: this play is as far from American melodrama as one can get.
Each cast member performs admirably in a tale of ambiguous sexual identity and the obsessive power of affection. As the bisexual lothario poet, Trevor (Jerzy Gwiazdowski) is particularly magnetic; Meghan Andrews—quite skilled at adopting Anne's highbred Sloane accent—is also in good form. Special kudos to Zachary Williamson for filling set changes with a totally engrossing soundtrack. Talya Klein's direction acknowledges the play's subtext and manages to use the Cashama theater's tiny space efficiently. And yet it's been hard for me to uncover why I found the whole thing so completely tedious.
I think I've hit upon the reason: this is a play completely dependent upon a culture that I know only through its (completely unreliable) stereotypes. For instance, the Brits are famously known for their stiff upper lips, their discomfort with all things blatantly emotional or overblown.
And it was through the haze of this stereotype that I understood poor Henry's plight: he is a gay man stumbling halfheartedly out of the closet and is completely infatuated with Trevor, but also dependent upon his heterosexual friend Anne. When Anne appropriates Trevor for the sexual commodity he is, Henry (David Mawhinney) is left feeling maligned and ignored. He reaches for both of them, but cannot remake a relationship with Trevor until his relationship with Anne dissolves and Trevor acknowledges the risky life he leads. The climax—Trevor's acknowledgement that he cannot donate blood because he is a health risk—gives the play its raison d'être; all this love and lust comes with a heavy price.
I didn't actually recognize, or empathize with, Henry's longing because I knew it first and foremost as an expression of British reserve. Perhaps it's that investigation of another culture—even one as easily accessible as contemporary London—and the way its members regard each other that keeps Clocks and Whistles from satisfying a gut feeling for something completely knowable.
Whether this reaction of mine has been aided and abetted by the play's age—it premiered in 1996 in London—cannot really be known. What I do know is that I regarded it almost anthropologically, like a case study of people I would never actually hang out with. And at two hours and 15 minutes, this case study goes on a little long.
Clocks and whistles are alarms of sorts: end of the work shift, watch out for that train, good morning, sunshine! They alert us to time's passing and to specific moments that we have deemed important. The proliferation of AIDS plays—or even plays that generally address the culture of sexually transmitted diseases—acts as an alarm of sorts. We are reminded that certain lifestyles, certain choices even, are risky and may carry irreversible consequences. For this reason, Clocks and Whistles was, and is, an important piece to see. It's too bad that watching this production has to be such a ho-hum affair.