Here's an exchange between two characters in the first scene of this play by Stephen Massicotte. The protagonist -- whom we'll shortly learn is a failed clockmaker named Heinrich Mann -- speaks first, to a preposessing inquisitor named Monsieur Pierre.
"Have I done something wrong?"
"I don't know, have you?"
"I'm answering your questions as truthfully as possible."
The scene has a whiff of Kafka about it -- Kafka if the hero weren't the cryptically guilt-ravaged "K" but rather an innocent Stan Laurel type, which is how Mann comes off in actor Harry Bouvy's brilliant mix of pathos and nervous physical comedy.
But even though it's set in an unnamed, World War I-era European country, and despite mention of people getting disappeared, Clockmaker ends up going in another, non-Kafkaesque direction entirely.
Indeed, the whole thing seems designed to keep audiences off-balance: Most of the action toggles between what appear to be two separate but parallel realities. In one of them, Mann is a semi-recluse who's failed his father's business, while his customer Frieda (Tami Dixon) is a sweet, timid woman abused by her brutish, self-pitying husband. In the other, Mann and Frieda repeatedly meet and court each other, neither quite knowing how he or she got there or recalling who the other is.
Meanwhile, in this production, directed by Tracy Brigden, it feels as though Massicotte is emphasizing both that his characters have been beaten down by circumstance and that they've failed themselves on some level.
It's an entertaining show, but any sense of lightness is at least a little deceptive. There's something darker at Clockmaker's bottom. The resolution -- I won't give too much away here -- is a kind of Rorschach for the audience: You can accept, with some cheer, the idea that the protagonists have found a sort of refuge from an unjust world. Or you can view their "salvation" as a victory in an ironic sense only.
It's a play with more layers than its melodramatic outline suggests.
The Clockmaker continues at City Theater through Feb. 21.