When one thinks of music and the stage, the name “Arthur Miller” does not immediately leap to mind, and so it was surprising to discover that Miller’s “The American Clock,” which Acme Theater is performing at the Veterans Memorial Theater, under the direction of David Burmester, opens with an all-cast rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” with recorded accompaniment, and complete with an attempt by at least one performer to do a soft shoe. But music is a part of the time period of this play, which looks at the lives of Americans just before, and during The Great Depression, when music helped to take one’s mind, at least briefly, off of the dire conditions.
There are no big musical production numbers in Miller’s play, no crisp choreography or stand-out voices, but music very definitely helps set the scene at the opening, and throughout the two and a half hour play, including an audience sing-along of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” at its conclusion.
“The American Clock” follows some 40 characters, played by 14 talented actors, and how they are affected by The Depression. At the heart of the play is the Baum family, an upper class Jewish family living in Manhattan, whose gradual loss of dignity, along with fading fortunes, is exemplified by the family piano, the pride and joy of mother Rose Baum (the always competent Maddy Ryen), who begins to sell her jewelry as the family income fades. They are forced to move to Brooklyn to live with their poorer relatives (Scott Scholes, Randi Famula, and Betsy Raymond), but her pride will not allow her to sell her piano, on which she plays songs which remind her of better times in Manhattan.
Husband Moe Baum (Anthony Pinto), once a successful businessman, appears to be disconnected, both to his family and to the chaos of life around him. When he is forced to accept public assistance, he must ask his son Lee (Dara Yazdani) for subway fare, and to explain to him exactly how to fill out the paperwork.
The family’s crumbling dignity is complete when Rose finally agrees to give up her piano
Lee is the survivor, and the hope for a recovering America. ''I waited with that crazy kind of expectation that comes when there is no hope, waited for the dream to come back from wherever it had gone to hide.'' As he gives up his dreams of going to college, he learns to adapt to a simpler lifestyle and becomes a writer, an observer of the world around him, and an alter ego of playwright Miller himself.
Yazdani gives Lee Baum a believable earnestness and a resilience which makes us know that this is a kid who is going to make it, despite the hardships he must endure.
Wall Street financiers, Arthur A. Robertson (James Henderson) and Clarence (Eric Delacorte) set the stage for the coming depression in the opening scenes, where they are cautiously making plans to sell their stocks and invest the money in gold bars, because they think the banks are going to fail.
While Delacorte is sometimes difficult to understand, particularly in later scenes, Henderson brings great energy to the part of Robinson, a character which appears in several of the vignettes and helps to bind the piece into a whole.
In the heartland, the Taylor family is forced into foreclosure. ''You couldn't hardly believe the day would come when the land wouldn't give,” says Mrs. Taylor (the versatile Betsy Raymond), wife of Henry (Eric Delacorte). The effect of The Depression all across the country is demonstrated with the forced auction of the Taylor farm, and the support the family receives from their neighbors.
The play contains 19 scenes, all performed with Acme’s usual flair. Others in the cast, playing multiple roles are: Arthur Conard, Fiona Lakeland, Zach Leuchars, Julieanne Conard, Vickie Franzen and Kate Williams.
In his notes for the program, director Burmester speaks to the great resilience of the American people as they faced the Great Depression and of Arthur Miller’s “insistence that a robust belief in the country and its future was at the heart of this resilience.”
This jaded reviewer wonders whether the country will ever again see that resilience and robust belief in the country.