Dark humor, detachment and fatalistic dialogue make for a trippy road trip to Pennsylvania in Matthew Freeman’s new play When is a Clock?, currently running at the Access Theater. Presented by Blue Coyote Theater Group, Freeman’s script renders played-out family dramas like divorce and adultery in a fresh, almost psychedelic form. After all-around wet noodle Gordon’s wife leaves him, his only clue to discern her whereabouts is a mysterious bookmark from Cornersville, PA. In fractured chronological order, we meet Gordon’s wife, son and co-workers, each of whom contributes to her leaving. When Gordon finally finds his wife and confronts the strange shaman she has shacked up with in Cornersville, he learns a baffling truth about the nature of their relationship.
Hardly a typical play, Freeman’s script is really a collection of monologues broken up by a few two-character scenes. What really works about the monologues is that most of them only make sense in hindsight, as we are often shown half of a conversation without knowing who is being addressed—only later are we shown the monologue in context. It is a simple trick, but an effective one that adds many layers to each performance of each repeated scene, especially when scenes we have watched a few times suddenly swerve or deviate. The language of the text balances poetic flourish with stark pragmatism very uniquely, and as a result the voice of When is a Clock? sounds like nothing else. That said, from the final confrontation on, the play’s cohesion gets a little unstuck, preventing audiences from clearly ascertaining exactly what has happened and, even more important, what it might mean.
Since Freeman’s talky prose vividly describes each environment, Director Kyle Ancowitz and the design team opts instead for high style, which clicks very well with the script. The projections of lonely small town roads, the upright bed that standing actors “lie” in, the overall rigid staging (and re-staging!) of the scenes — everything beefs up the atmosphere of disconnect. The characters move from one location to the next like chess pieces, moving according to some unknown set of rules, alternately addressing the audience or each other. At times they appear through illuminated fabric walls, adding a ghostly quality to their comings and goings.
It was easy to buy Gordon as a disillusioned husband, thanks to Tom Stagg's precise, subdued performance. His runaway wife Browyn, played by Tracey Gilbert, comes across as both sympathetic and irrational — roped into a strange belief system to fill the void left by her husband. The entire cast is pitch-perfect, with especially good performances from Matthey Trumbull as Gordon’s fish-hating boss and David Delgrosso as the overzealous, statistic-spouting cop investigating Browyn’s disappearance.
Despite a let-down ending, When is a Clock? skirts traditional structure and content aptly, leaving in its wake something wholly new. The tone lands somewhere between the films of Todd Solondz and the surreal paintings of Salvator Dali — a bizarre, but still mundane landscape of non-related non-entities, desperately seeking connection.