THE AMERICAN CLOCK -- At the Morris Mechanic Theater in Baltimore, through November 1.
When Arthur Miller created Willy Loman, he used the conventional method of fiction, which is to aim at the general by going through the particular. Few modern playwrights have done this with such spectacular success. The pathetically jaunty hero of "Death of a Salesman" became an American symbol, the very stoop of his shoulders conveying a national plight.
In Miller's new play, "The American Clock," having a pre-Broadway engagement at Baltimore's Mechanic Theater, he has only perfunctorily bothered with creating idiosyncratic individuals or situations. He skipped right ahead and put walking symbols on stage to voice general thoughts. s
For nearly three hours, a woman wanders about, tinkering at the piano and being fairly game, but occasionally despairing, about the Great Depression.
"She was so like the country," intones the narrator, who is supposed to be her son.
All right, but how is she like the country?
"There was nothing she didn't believe that she didn't believe the opposite."
Oh. But even if it were clearer what this symbol symbolized, the fact is that symbols wandering around stage unclothed in character tend to be tedious, and their speeches about the state of the universe tend to be unenlightening. This play has 52 characters with only shreds of specificity, such as being Jewish or black or old or crippled. Their combined efforts are devoted to stating that the Depression meant hard times for everyone, that nobody seemed to know what to do, but that most survived, anyway.
Showing this emotionally would be something else, and the play is supposed to be inspired by Studs Terkel's version. But the impact is squelched by the harsh humor of hindsight. We are invited to laugh indulgently at how ignorant people were about what was to happen in the world: "How can there be another war?" "The German workers are going to rise up any day now and destroy Nazism." "There's going to be a revolution [in America] -- you can smell it in the air."
Why, these people were so dumb they thought the Japanese didn't know how to produce a decent automobile, the narrator tells us.
There's not much point in turning back the clock only to complain that it doesn't show the correct current time.